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

WASHINGTON — According to the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the agency will have four key areas of focus in the year ahead: its staff, enhancing a culture of innovation, engaging the private sector, and accountability.

The agency, which was without a Senate-confirmed leader for about two years before Sean Cairncross took over as CEO in July, is looking to chart a way forward that focuses on those key areas as it aims to expand its work. In the year ahead, MCC will continue its work toward establishing its first regional compact in West Africa, start up a threshold compact in Kenya, and launch a new compact in Mozambique — all decisions that were approved by the board in December.

“The whole design of the agency is to be self-improving and to learn.”

— Sean Cairncross, CEO, Millennium Challenge Corporation

How much the agency does will be dependent on resources, Cairncross told Devex.

“With more resources, there's more that you can do,” he said in a recent interview. “I am an advocate for MCC getting increased resources, yes.”

One of Cairncross’ goals is also to spread the word about MCC, raise the agency’s profile, and help tell what he calls its “remarkable story for U.S. engagement with the world.”

MCC is unique in Cairncross’ view largely because it has a different political dynamic.

“It has a unique model. In many ways, it's protected from the ‘day in, day out’ political context of Washington, D.C. And so maintaining that — and the openness, the transparency, the reliance on data, the focus on accountability, both for MCC and for partner countries — I think is vital,” he said. “That being said, the whole design of the agency is to be self-improving and to learn.”

Cairncross wants to enhance the model, so he’s led a process with senior staff, holding meetings and doing listening sessions with the agency, to gather ideas. This resulted in the four areas of focus for the agency.

There had been concerns about staffing and staff morale when Cairncross took up his post, and that’s likely part of the reason the agency has deemed its people a key point of focus.

“Attracting good people to work here, making sure that the people who have built the agency want to stay and are empowered to make decisions and execute on their jobs is very important,” he said. “One of our strategic priorities is to empower MCC staff.”

Cairncross sees his job as helping to support the staff with the resources they need or the leverage they might require when working with a specific country to drive the agency forward, he said, adding that he’s there to help address bottlenecks that are hindering progress.

In addition to empowering staff, MCC will also work to build an innovative culture that enhances smart risk-taking and helps people feel empowered to make decisions, Cairncross said. The agency will also seek to crowd in the private sector and private capital, including through its work on blended finance.

MCC is looking at how it can incorporate blended finance or bring in private finance or participation in its design process so that it better understands what work needs to be done to create an enabling environment for private investment.

The renewed focus on transparency is both internal and with its partner countries. To that end, MCC opened its budget roundtable to all staff for the first time so that they could gain insight into how decisions are made and the process surrounding them.

Cairncross shared some reflections on his first six months as CEO. During this time, he’s traveled to six countries where MCC works — Malawi, Côte D’Ivoire, El Salvador, Georgia, Niger, and Morocco — met with all the country teams in D.C., spent time talking to Congress, and gotten to know the broader development community.

Cairncross is also known for roaming the agency’s building, popping in to check with different teams on the day-to-day happenings in a particular country.

“What I think I've learned is, for an agency of this size, we have a remarkable ability to leverage real change in our partner countries and work to help consolidate the democratic reforms and the open market policies that are the reason that we got engaged with our partners to begin with,” he said.

Cairncross acknowledged that any agency without a confirmed head would have challenges setting a strategic direction but said, “It is remarkable the work that the staff did here in making sure that the agency continued to run smoothly.”

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in December, he answered questions related to concerns that the White House was involved in staffing and that some people hired by the agency weren’t qualified. Cairncross told senators then — and reiterated to Devex — that hiring is driven by the needs of the agency and that it has hired and will hire based on the qualifications needed for the job to be filled. MCC has hired about 30 new staff members since July.

“It's a very self-selecting place. People are here because they like the mission,” Cairncross said. "That's an invigorating environment to be in because there aren’t sort of the typical D.C. turf wars for control. It's really constant conversations about ideas.”

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor 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.