MCC: ‘Country Ownership’ a Work in Progress

Tension between the Millennium Challenge Corp.'s twin goals of letting partner countries take the lead on development projects while ensuring successful implementation is forcing the government corporation to revisit some of its approaches to international development, an MCC official said this week.

These tensions arise when the agency and its partner countries have different ideas about the best routes for accomplishing development goals, said Alicia Phillips Mandaville, MCC's associate director for development policy, at a Feb. 18 event in Washington on the agency's approach to country ownership.

"What do you do if a country has a bad idea?" she asked at the National Press Club event, which was sponsored by MCC and Oxfam America. "We're clear about our expectations of return" but often countries have their own goals in terms of development results, she continued.

The MCC's candor comes at a time of great uncertainty for the development community, with President Barack Obama forming his aid strategy and the world reeling from a broad economic slowdown. Many questions also surround the future of MCC, an organization created by former President George W. Bush: Obama officials have expressed support for MCC, but no specific plans for its future have been announced.

Tensions over MCC's goal to foster country ownership were first reported in a blog post earlier this week. At yesterday's event, the agency elaborated on these tensions, as well as other obstacles it has encountered since it began its work in 2004.

For instance, MCC acknowledges that it can be difficult to maintain accountability and transparency in MCC-backed projects: Because MCC presence on the ground is small, nearly all accountability and transparency measures must be implemented by the countries receiving aid.

This presents a challenges, Mandaville said, as lawmakers in the United States want to know how MCC money is being used, while officials in the country receiving aid want autonomy to implement aid programs as they see fit.

Development "is about creating time and space for developing countries to speak for themselves," said Ombeni Sefue, Tanzanian ambassador to the United States.

Lawmakers are at times impatient with this approach, as funding decisions are made annually and MCC does not have a long track record that allows the agency to point to past successes as justification for additional money or continued support.

"Because we're newer, we don't have decades worth of projects to point to," Mandaville said.

Because of these tensions, as well as MCC's status as a new agency, Mandaville said MCC's processes, including its definition of country ownership, is likely to change as time goes on.

"We recognize this is an evolving process," she said. "We're still working on this."

About the author

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    David Francis

    David is a Washington-based journalist and former Devex staffer who spearheaded Devex's "Obama's Foreign Aid Reform" blog. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, SportsIllustrated.com, San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy magazine, and the Washington Monthly. David holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a graduate degree from Georgetown University.