Obama in Ghana: A focus on MCC’s work in Africa

The Millennium Challenge Corp.'s Jonathan Bloom, deputy vice president for compact implementation in Africa, and Gretchen "Gigi" Goodhart, associate country director for Ghana, applaud U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to visit Ghana on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office. Photo by: MCC

U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ghana this weekend as part of his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office. Obama arrived July 10 and left the next day after addressing the Ghanaian parliament.

MCC has a $547 million compact with the West African nation, signed in August 2006. The five-year agreement aims to reduce poverty and raise income levels.

Ahead of Obama’s trip, Jonathan Bloom, MCC’s deputy vice president for compact implementation in Africa, and Gretchen “Gigi” Goodhart, associate country director for Ghana, spoke with Devex about their expectations for Obama’s trip. They also talked about the agency’s continuing work in Ghana and Africa.

Why do you think President Obama chose Ghana as the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to visit as president?

Bloom: From our perspective, it’s an excellent choice as a country that has a strong record of sound governance and strong development policies. To the extent that MCC values governance and economic freedom, Ghana meets all of those criteria. Clearly those are important to the rest of the U.S. development establishment, and therefore to the White House.

Can you give us an idea of the nature of the compact with Ghana?

Goodhart: [MCC’s compact with Ghana] is really focused on the agricultural sector by building capacity and by improving productivity of farmers, so they can have some high-value crops. We’re also improving development infrastructure. We are building roads throughout the country, as well as the main highway in Accra that takes crops to port. The idea is to support Ghana’s farmers: They need to get their goods to market, and they need to get their goods to market in good condition. That’s why we focus on transportation. There’s rural development as well that focuses on supporting the farmers through banking and other social structures.

Bloom: If we look at the whole program overall, ultimately it’s focused on where the poor people are. While there are lots of poor people in the cities, most of the poor people are out in the country. There are opportunities for them to improve food security … improve their family incomes, and improve their standard of living. The program takes a comprehensive look across all these needs. You can’t just do one thing - you have to do them all simultaneously and raise them all up at the same time. That’s one of the key challenges.

What role is MCC playing in Obama’s trip?

Bloom: We’ve had a number of discussions back and forth. We can’t answer that. But the United States government has interest in Ghana.

What message would you like President Obama to take away from his visit in terms of the work MCC has done in Ghana?

Bloom: It’s more important for the people of Ghana and America [to understand the message]. I think the Ghana program is a great illustration of exactly the kind of development that’s important to Ghana and important to the American people. It’s helping poor people by giving them the tools to help themselves in a country that’s doing so many of the right things. We’re giving poor people the ability to help themselves.

Goodhart: [Development programs are] being managed by the Ghanaians. It’s real country ownership. It serves as an example to underscore the fact that there are countries with good governance and can take control of their development. Our program underscores that.

What specific lessons about effective aid delivery can be drawn from MCC’s work in Africa?

Bloom: The key principles of MCC are that countries need to take ownership [of development programs]. When the country owns it, it tends to work better. For MCC, policies matter. Ghana has been working really hard with good governance … investing in people and economic freedom to create the basis, so the money can do some good. You have to plant the seeds in a fertile field. We’ve been tracking results; the early results are pretty darn impressive.

Goodhart: I’ve been doing international development work for years, and I can tell you the capacity of the Ghanaians to implement this program is incredible. It’s an example of MCC on the right track with the right program and doing the right thing. [Ghanaians are] doing the right thing.

In what regions, sectors, or issues can MCC play a larger role in Africa?

Bloom: When MCC was first started, the theory was there were few countries in Africa that might - with great difficulty - over time qualify [for MCC compacts]. It has been a surprise to a lot of folks outside of there that 11 out of 18 programs are in Africa. Over 70 percent of our dollars are in Africa. That’s a shock! Over the next couple of years, the weight of Africa at MCC will continue to grow, both in numbers and in dollars. It’s an opportunity for the folks in [Africa] to take ownership.

What are some specific ideas on the table right now for improving the coordination of MCC and USAID in Africa?

Goodhart: In our rural development project, we have a community service program that works on improving schools. We’re working on a number of schools right now. USAID is training about 260 teachers who will live in the communities where we’re constructing schools. It’s one example of how we work with USAID. It’s really working well. We’re excited about it.

Bloom: USAID had an earlier program that, in some ways, laid the basis for agricultural development and did some of the basic market analysis that helped the Ghanaians pitch this rural development project to us. USAID’s doing some of the analytic work was instrumental in helping the Ghanaians frame this proposal to MCC. USAID has focused on overcoming long-term concerns in development.

Would MCC like to change any of its contracting procedures in terms of how work is done in Africa?

Bloom: We’re trying to get broader and wider participation. We are actively marketing to firms around the world, but in particular U.S. firms. We’ve had a dozen marketing and outreach sessions in Washington and around the country, trying to get more [firms to participate in the procurement process]. We do want to get broader participation, more competition, better prices and high quality proposals. That’s a key change.

What’s next for MCC’s Africa operations when it comes to funding, staffing and organizational reform?

Bloom: I think the critical part is we want countries to work toward eligibility. We have 11 [compact] countries in Africa, which is pretty amazing. We can do more with more money, and increase the number of countries and have an even bigger impact. We’re not talking about staggering amounts of money compared to any of the other programs around. But it’s so critical to have that reliable continuing chunks of commitment to get these countries to do the hard political things, to get these countries to do the right thing. That’s the critical piece - to have some consistent, dependable, reliable funding and continuity of programs.

Five years from now, what would you like to see in terms of success in Ghana?

Goodhart: I do believe we’re going to achieve great success, but that’s not the end. There’s always work to do. I hope that we can continue working in Ghana, whether that be a second compact or what have you. I really hope this is going to pull in the private sector. There aren’t a lot of Americans working in Africa. I can see already how MCC’s investment and the U.S. government’s investment is making [Ghana] more attractive to American investors. This is a real door opener to more private sector investment.

Bloom: We’re seeing more young Ghanaians come back to Ghana, who have gone to school or worked in the States, who are paying attention to what’s going on and seeing opportunity there. It’s human remittances of human capital - and that’s a real victory. When young Ghanaians with some real enterprise think their best opportunities are back in Ghana, that’s a great success.

About the author

  • 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.