Sean Cairncross, the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Photo by: MCC

WASHINGTON — The Millennium Challenge Corporation will stay focused on its model when it comes to future decision-making and new collaborations, said Sean Cairncross, CEO of MCC.

In one of his first appearances since starting the job in late June, Cairncross praised agency staff and told the crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that it’s already the “best job I’ve ever had.”

After long wait, MCC welcomes new CEO

The Millennium Challenge Corporation's long wait for a Senate-confirmed CEO is over. A bumpy few years for the agency has culminated in the appointment of Sean Cairncross as its new leader.

Cairncross recently returned from his first trip in his new position, where he launched the compact in Côte d’Ivoire, and many of the examples of the agency’s work that he shared were tied to that trip. Prior to his confirmation hearing, Cairncross hadn’t traveled to any of the countries where MCC works.

“What is important to me is that the model and the focus MCC has had since its inception does not change. In that we stay laser focused on poverty reduction through economic growth and stay the leading innovators and executors of our large-scale hard infrastructure projects,” he said. “That's what's made us successful, that's what will continue to make MCC successful.”

One of his goals is to “preserve and protect” and grow support for the model, Cairncross said.

“We’re not making a policy decision based on some other strategic concern. This is designed to keep the process objective. It’s designed to help the agency stay laser focused on its singular mission of reducing poverty through economic growth. And I think it’s led to an enormous amount of bipartisan support on the Hill. I think it has great cache in the countries where we work,” he said.

Cairncross said that MCC’s model — which demands openness and accountability, is host-country led, includes civil society, and is focused on creating a measurable sustainable impact for citizens — differs from other countries’ models, particularly China’s.

“MCC is a great alternative and a great model that just stands in contrast to Belt and Road, which primarily drives debt; it does not engage the civil society component of a country, it isn't an opening bidding process … and it’s really the antithesis of the sort of knowledge process and result that MCC and the U.S. is trying to provide,” he said.

Last year MCC was given the authority to create regional compacts and the board approved five West African countries that were eligible for consideration as part of the first cross-border compact. Cairncross said that it is important to him, and MCC staff, that those compacts have the same “rigor, accountability, transparency” that applies to other compacts and that they’re looking to be sure the “first footballs out of the gate here are very successful.”

But it doesn’t look like MCC will consider having third compacts with countries any time soon. When asked, Cairncross said that more analysis is needed before considering that, and it was “not something I’m looking to engage in any immediate capacity.”

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One of his priorities will be trying to help MCC countries attract more private investment and elevating knowledge about what the agency does and what opportunities exist, Cairncross said. He’d also like to see more American companies bid on MCC projects, he added.

Part of that private sector engagement could be done in partnership with the soon-to-be-launched U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, Cairncross said. It is important for the two agencies to work closely together to share information, and try to align goals and priorities.

“We have good communication now, but I hope to integrate that further and institutionalize it in some ways,” he said.

Cairncross was also asked about how he sees his role outside the agency, particularly at a time when the Trump administration has repeatedly requested significant cuts to foreign aid. Lori Rowley, the director of global food security and aid effectiveness at the Lugar Center, who asked the question, said that in the long run those cuts hurt MCC, because countries won’t be developing to a point where they’re eligible for MCC compacts.

“I understand very clearly what the concern is,” Cairncross said. “From where I sit at MCC, I want to use our model and our example to make the case for continued U.S. engagement.”

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.