As efforts to strengthen U.S.-Africa relations are in motion with plans for several high-level delegations to visit the continent following the December 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Alice Albright, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), in this interview with Carol Castiel at VOA Washington headquarters, discusses the role of MCC in several African countries and the organization’s future goals. The following highlighted excerpts from their conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
How would you define the MCC’s unique mission and model?
MCC was created in 2004 with the intention of doing international aid in a somewhat different way. Our mission is to fight poverty through economic growth and our business model is quite distinctive.
We start with a very selective process for determining the countries with whom we work. There are essentially two pieces to that. One is whether or not a country is low-income enough. The second is whether or not a country passes what we call our “scorecard.” The scorecard measures three essential policy areas. One is: is a country managing its economy well; the second is whether a country is investing in its people. These are investments in health and education, for example. And the third is: whether or not a country is on a strong democratic pathway and trying to fight corruption.
Once a country gets through those two essential filters at the beginning, we then start working with countries to figure out jointly, as partners, what are the main challenges towards economic growth ahead of them. Finally, once we do a lot of design, evaluation and diagnostic work, we then deploy, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars of grant money. This is significant, particularly in the current environment, to help countries invest in their biggest challenge.
One of the things that also really distinguishes it is how much we put at the heart of what we call country ownership, which is working with the countries on the problems that they think are their priorities.
Let’s talk about your stewardship. What do you bring to the agency, what unique vision?
Well, first of all, it’s an enormous honor to be at the agency and it is an agency of incredibly talented people. I just happened to be lucky enough to be nominated and confirmed for the job. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about being there.
The agency already does incredible work. Some of the things that we’re currently working on are, for example, our gender and inclusion strategy. Even though MCC has had a lot of experience in that area we decided that it was important to sort of step it up a bit.
We’re spending a lot of time on the question of climate change and the need for climate resilience.
We’re very concerned about the impact. As you know, many countries have experienced all kinds of dislocation and migration for various reasons. Even though we are not a humanitarian assistance agency, we see the impact on countries of all of the forms of fragility.
I bring, perhaps, a different lens on a couple of things. I used to work very happily in a wonderful education partnership. So, I’m always asking: “What are we doing about education?” But it’s a terrific place and it’s just a terrific honor to be able to lead it and work with all my wonderful colleagues there.
In terms of the major sectors in which you work, they seem to be more infrastructure oriented. Talk about the sectors in particular that you support.
This is one of the more interesting aspects of the model. Unlike many other aid agencies where either they are a single sector by design or perhaps there are a number of earmarks over their choice of sectors, we are not sector confined. We can work almost in any sector.
Now, if you look at the breadth of sectors that we do work on, there are some clear similarities. A lot of it is infrastructure, but we work with countries on what we call the basics: Do they have energy? Do they have a road transportation network? Do they have an agricultural system that is scalable? Do they have health? Do they have education? Do they have transportation? Do they have ports? And so those tend to be major impediments to a country’s growth pathway, which is why we end up working with them.
And I can give you some great examples to just really boil it down to specifics. I was just in Sierra Leone last week. We’ve come to realize that it is in major need of upgrade to its electricity network. There’s a significant part of the country that does not have any reach of electricity. They also have a very fragmented generation capacity that is very heavily reliant on diesel. Their transmission and distribution lines are very inadequate relative to where the population lives. I was in a village talking to community members about what is the impact on their life of not having electricity. They’re not able to get their businesses off the ground. The children are not able to do their homework at night. Babies are being delivered in some cases by flashlight. And so, lack of electricity in a country is a fundamental barrier.
We are in the process of helping them identify the particular gaps in their overall energy landscape that need to be invested in. We’re really studying those carefully with the government, and then, as we proceed, we will probably invest a significant amount of money to help them upgrade their energy network.
President Joe Biden is trying to increase engagement in Africa based on the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. How do you play a role in that?
The president and the administration have indicated significant interest in the continent. And the African Leaders Summit in December was a real success and a really very important moment in terms of continuing to foster strong relations on the continent. It was really an honor for MCC to be so involved in that.
We signed our first regional compact for just a little bit over $500 million that enabled us to help Benin and Niger build a road transportation network that will increase trade between Niamey down to Cotonou. And we also had a number of terrific meetings with heads of state. It was a really successful few days, I think, and we found it very, very valuable.
Africa wants to integrate through the creation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement. So, this regional type of compact that you just mentioned between Benin and Niger, that plays right into that overall goal of the continent.
Yes, it very much matches what the continent aspires for itself. When you talk to leaders, what you hear about is how interested they are in greater integration as a way of driving economic growth, and there’s all kinds of interesting statistics that compare the degree of regional trade with other parts of the world and there’s certainly room to grow.
Benin and Niger were the first one and we’re now looking forward to getting on with it in terms of the implementation. We are also working on a regional power integration compact. It will be essentially situated in Cote d’Ivoire and it will map the geographic footprint of the West African power pool. It will help bring greater investment to that power network, which is essential to the overall power availability in that part of the continent.
And then, just in December, our board approved a third regional compact, which will be initially situated in Senegal and some of its neighbors. But we’ve got to start the process by looking at what are the means of regional integration opportunities that could be in and around Senegal, and then we’ll go from there.
It’s an authority that is difficult to use, but very powerful and we’re very enthusiastic about using it. Not only on the continent, but you can also think about where it could have application elsewhere in the world.