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This week, Congress passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act and Millennium Challenge Act Modernization Act (H.R. 3445). Once signed, it will give MCC the long-awaited authority needed to pursue regional programming more effectively. The change is a technical one that will permit the agency to have multiple, concurrent compacts with a single country—allowing MCC to pursue both a standard, bilateral compact with a partner, as well as a regionally focused investment with coordinated interventions in neighboring countries. With this authority, MCC will be better placed to address cross-border constraints to growth—which is often critical and potentially very high return in many of the places the agency works.
MCC has been angling for concurrent compact authority for years. The agency first put the idea forth as a legislative priority in 2010, though at that time, it was focused on using the authority to manage pipelines and address unobligated balances. Though concurrent compacts fell down the agency’s legislative priority list for a few years after that, by 2015, MCC had turned back to the idea, this time as a critical tool to enable regionally focused programming. Now that MCC and its partner countries have the green light to think beyond national borders, how can they make the most of it?
Regional programs are much more complicated than bilateral programs, often take longer, and can carry more risk. And MCC’s particular way of doing business—working only with countries that maintain good governance and giving partner countries the lead in program identification and implementation—will add layers of complexity. The agency has undoubtedly started thinking through how it would structure a regionally focused investment using concurrent compacts. As MCC solidifies this thinking and moves to pilot initial programs, there are several questions the agency will need to answer.
How will cross-border investments be identified? Will the agency structure constraints to growth analyses specifically to look at regional issues and/or allow for a regional investment to emerge from the findings of an individual country growth diagnostic? To what extent will MCC seek to support components of pre-existing regional initiatives?
How will regional anchors outside the MCC sphere be taken into account? In most regions, the regional economic powerhouse is not an MCC partner country, due either to its income level (South Africa) or its governance quality (Nigeria), or—in the case of India—its economic size and disinterest in the kind of aid MCC offers. But these countries are likely to play an important role in regional development initiatives and cross-border economic activity. How will the agency incorporate these actors in ways that don’t involve direct funding?
How will MCC deal with suspension or termination of individual countries in a multi-country program? MCC has had to suspend, terminate, or otherwise curtail funds to a number of partner countries whose policy choices became inconsistent with MCC’s good governance requirements. The decision to pull funds is always a difficult one for MCC to make; it would be more challenging if multiple countries are involved. Would MCC suspend/terminate just the activities in the particular country? What if the economic viability of the investment were contingent upon the activities and associated reforms in the suspended/terminated country taking place?
What will the local implementation unit(s) look like? MCC’s bilateral programs are run through local implementing units, typically set up as new government units. Will the units that manage cross-border investments be new multiparty structures, or would existing country units be restructured (and expanded) to take on new roles? What structure will best manage the complexity of multiple stakeholders?
How can MCC best structure incentives across multiple parties when costs and gains are unlikely to be equally shared? In order for MCC investments to yield their expected results, partner country governments must often agree to tackle difficult reforms. These can be tough negotiations even when the gains from the investment would accrue primarily to the country in question. In a cross-border investment, costs and gains may not be equally shared. How can MCC ensure the success of multilateral negotiations when one party may have reduced incentive to undertake necessary but difficult political reforms if the benefits accrue disproportionately to another party?
These questions are complicated, as are many other issues that MCC will undoubtedly grapple with as it moves ahead. But complicated doesn’t mean prohibitive. It just means that MCC would be wise to proceed conservatively, undertaking a small number of pilots with opportunities for learning built in. Sean Cairncross, the nominee to be MCC’s new CEO, recognizes this, pointedly saying that it would be important for the agency to pursue regional investments “carefully” and “in a focused manner.” Sounds like a good plan.
Last week, Congress completed work on a spending package that funds the federal government through the remainder of the fiscal year. As far as development and diplomacy are concerned, the bill is an unmistakable rejection of the deep cuts proposed by the Trump administration.
Here are a few standouts from CGD’s most-watched list.
Fortifying the base
With a topline of just over $54.1 billion, the State and Foreign Operations (SFOPs) division of the bill comes in slightly higher than last year’s omnibus—though total SFOPs spending falls by just over $3 billion compared to FY 2017, when you take into account the supplemental bill signed into law in late 2016.
Figures in all tables are in millions and include funding from draft appropriations bill released in the House and Senate.
*A CBO re-estimate puts the administration’s request at closer to $40.5B.
Importantly, the bill shifts a greater share of funding to the base budget, reducing reliance on off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds—which weren’t intended as an enduring budget option. This move comes at a critical time after lawmakers reportedly agreed to non-defense OCO caps of $12 billion in FY18 and $8 billion in FY19, as part of the two-year budget deal reached last month.
Protecting State and USAID
Congress jettisoned the administration’s proposal to merge a number of bilateral assistance accounts—most notably the Economic Support Fund (ESF) and USAID’s Development Assistance. It also landed on a figure for these functions that is 60 percent higher than the president’s request.
Economic Support Fund
$3,969 supplemental ESF$1,031
Assistance for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia
$750 supplemental AEECA$157
Economic Support, Democracy, and Development Assistance
In addition, both the bill text and the accompanying explanatory statement send clear signals that Congress will be keeping close watch over the redesign process underway at the State Department and USAID. Specifically, lawmakers direct the administration to provide detailed descriptions of any planned redesign or reorganization activities, accompanied by assessments of how proposed actions would lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness, the likely impact on broader aims to advance the US national interest, cost estimates, and an accounting of staff involvement.
In a similar vein, the bill and statement include a variety of reporting requirements related to personnel levels, likely reflecting concerns over the failure to fill key vacancies at both agencies and the departure of career diplomatic staff—including a number of top officials—at the State Department.
The bill’s explanatory statement also requests ongoing consultation on USAID’s pursuit of strategic transitions—the agency’s effort to support the development of partner countries’ capacity to finance and manage their own development and eventually transition away from needing aid. Congress clearly wants to be kept in the loop, including about the metrics that will help inform decisions about whether, when, and how to begin transitioning country partnerships, the resources involved in the effort, and descriptions of transition plans. All issues of worthy of early consideration.
Interestingly, Congress provides an explicit allocation of $23 million for USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), a venture capital-like unit that seeks to identify and rigorously test new solutions to development problems and help scale those that prove successful. (My colleagues highlighted the work of DIV in this piece on advancing the evidence agenda at the agency.) While DIV is still pursuing a number of evidence-oriented functions, it’s been operating in a more limited manner since last July, when “shifting resource constraints” prompted USAID to stop accepting new applications for funding through DIV. This move spurred conversations on Capitol Hill about the importance of DIV’s work in finding innovative ways to help the poor—and now, it appears, a new spending directive.
Responding to crises
When President Trump’s first budget request arrived, members were quick to decry significant reductions in critical accounts that support humanitarian assistance—cuts which were viewed as callous in the face of multiple complex crises. The funding levels in the final bill passed by Congress better reflect the considerable need for life-saving aid around the globe.
International Disaster Assistance
Food for Peace Title II*
*This funding is provided through the Agriculture Appropriations bill and is not tallied in the topline figure.
Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA)
$2,431 Supplemental $300
In addition, the bill would allow ESF funding to be used to contribute to the World Bank’s Concessional Financing Facility, which was established to support middle-income countries hosting large refugee populations. As a CGD-IRC joint report notes, active engagement from development actors like the World Bank in this area is a notable change from the past, but a critical one in addressing the complex challenge of protracted displacement.
Meeting the multilateral request
As my colleague Scott Morris has pointed out, the Trump administration frequently exhibits skepticism toward multilateral engagement. While the administration’s FY18 request for US contributions to the international financial institutions largely met existing obligations, it lacked any ambition. Despite a low starting point in the House, Congress ultimately fulfilled the administration’s request and included a bit of additional funding for the Global Environment Facility. But the real test for both the administration and Congress is likely to come over the next couple of years as the World Bank’s International Development Association and a number of regional development banks and vertical funds hold replenishments.
International Financial Institutions (IFIs)
The bill’s explanatory statement includes language that could help pave the way for a future multilateral aid review. Federal agencies will be required to submit a report that includes:
1) a description of the current tools, methods, and resources, including personnel, employed by the Department of State, USAID, the Department of the Treasury, and other relevant Federal agencies, to assess the value of, and prioritize contributions to, international organizations and other multilateral entities; and (2) recommendations for the development of more effective tools and methods for evaluating United States participation in, and contributions to, such organizations and entities.
Restoring global health spending
Proving once again that US global health spending enjoys strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, the bill restores funding for global health programs that were shortchanged in the President’s budget request.
Global Health Programs
The bill also explicitly calls on the administration to bring together actors from across the federal government to produce a global health security strategy. My global health colleagues assure me that an infectious disease outbreak requiring substantial US action and leadership is a matter of when, not if. Advancing a proactive agenda to address the threat of future pandemics is smart policy.
In addition, where the Trump administration’s FY18 budget had zeroed out family planning and reproductive health spending, the omnibus bill ignores that completely providing level funding ($607.5 million) compared to FY17.
Development finance: continuing support, awaiting reform?
The president’s budget request for FY18 indicated the administration planned to wind down the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Thankfully, the administration’s position has evolved considerably since then. The omnibus bill provides a slight boost to OPIC, just as debate heats up on proposed legislation that aims to strengthen US development finance.
With growing talk of reform, the explanatory statement asks the relevant federal agencies to review and report on how best to ensure coordinated development finance that delivers development impact—building off language in the report that accompanied the House bill.
Tomorrow, USAID Administrator Mark Green heads to Capitol Hill to defend the Trump administration’s FY 2019 foreign assistance budget request. It won’t be easy. Lawmakers have pushed back hard against the drastic cuts to US global development and humanitarian spending proposed by the administration.
And while, under Green’s leadership, USAID has advanced several smart ideas to improve the agency’s effectiveness—including developing a framework for thinking about aid transition, piloting new ways to pay for results, and improving procurement processes—there remain significant questions about how these efforts will fare in the absence of sufficient resources and whether proposing such deep cuts provokes a level of skepticism that jeopardizes reform efforts.
Here are some specific issues I hope receive attention during tomorrow’s hearing:
At this time last year, the Trump administration was reportedly contemplating folding USAID into the State Department as part of an effort to “streamline” the federal government. The consensus reaction from the development community was that preserving USAID’s independence is paramount. For several months we’ve heard repeated assurances that consolidation is no longer on the table. But ongoing unease about the relationship between the State Department and USAID suggests the point remains relevant.
The rapport between the department and agency is liable to change with new leadership on the horizon for State. Even so, the hearing provides a useful opening for the many members who support USAID’s independence to go on record and give Green a chance to make the case for it.
Green’s vision for USAID’s development work is centered on a “journey to self-reliance”—supporting the development of countries’ capacity to finance and manage their own development so they can eventually transition away from aid. This vision isn’t new—previous administrators have espoused similar convictions. But Green’s proposal to develop a transparent and evidence-based approach to deciding if, when, and how to transition a relationship with a country from one based on grant-based economic assistance to one focused on trade support and other forms of development finance is more focused than many previous efforts and deserves recognition.
An idea, however, is only as good as its implementation, and there are a number of unanswered questions about how this concept will be put into practice. If the hearing delves into Green’s signature “journey to self-reliance,” I hope members ask, how would USAID seek to redefine its relationship with a country based on the new framework? How will proposed metrics be used to inform decisions about readiness for transition and/or the approach USAID should take in a particular country, and what makes them an appropriate tool for this purpose? What is the relationship between the “journey to self-reliance” framework and other strategy-setting processes?
And how does it feed into processes that seek to include local priorities and goals? Directives and initiatives from Washington already tend to dominate missions’ strategic decisions; how will USAID ensure its “journey to self-reliance” framework doesn’t become yet another Washington-based tool that limits the influence of country-determined priorities?
Domestic resource mobilization
An administration-released factsheet on the FY19 budget request highlighted a new commitment to domestic resource mobilization (DRM)—$75 million for activities that help countries self-finance their own development. This is a welcome push that aligns well with USAID’s “journey to self-reliance” framework, as well as with the internationally endorsed Addis Tax Initiative, which asks donors to increase their support for DRM.
But even amid widespread support for DRM, there are real gaps in what we know about assistance in this area. To begin with, we don’t even have a good account of how much we’re currently spending on DRM, though this is improving. We also know relatively little about the effectiveness of various interventions, which largely fall into the camp of more-difficult-to-evaluate technical assistance. I hope, as part of the new initiative, that Green can articulate how the agency will define success in this area and assess the degree to which its investments achieve their intended outcomes.
While it may not sound glamorous or exciting, getting procurement right is foundational to USAID’s effectiveness. Previous administrations have spearheaded some important shifts in how USAID makes awards, but more work remains to ensure award types are better aligned with USAID’s vision for how it wants to do business.
The Trump administration makes a lotofreferences to the importance of evidence-based decision making. And USAID, with Green at the helm, has demonstrated this commitment in some noteworthy ways. Within the last year, for instance, the agency hosted a day-long event showcasing evidence and evaluation and announced participation in a new development impact bond (DIB), an innovative results-based financing scheme.
On the other hand, the administration’s proposed budget would strike a massive blow to USAID’s evidence and evaluation functions. The FY19 budget request contains a 40 percent cut (compared to FY17 levels) to the Bureau of Policy Planning and Learning—the headquarters of the agency’s learning, evaluation, and research efforts. And it would slash funding for the Global Development Lab (the Lab) by 80 percent.
Within the Lab, the evidence-focused components have been particularly shorted. Last year, USAID closed new applications for Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), the part of the Lab that rigorously tests new ideas for solutions to development problems and helps scale those that prove successful.
Green has talked a lot about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of USAID. The hearing provides an opportunity for him to highlight some of the innovative ways USAID is using evidence to pursue these objectives, but he should also be pressed on the risks that downsizing the agency’s evidence engines poses to the broader effectiveness agenda.
Fragile and conflict-affected contexts
At least a third of USAID’s assistance goes to fragile and conflict-affected states.* Fragile states are where poverty is increasingly concentrated, humanitarian relief is most needed, and US national security interests are often most pressing. Fragility, however, is extraordinarily complex, often confounding the most well-intentioned efforts by donors to promote stability and development. Recently introduced legislation (H.R. 5273), sponsored by a number of panel members, would require USAID—along with the State Department and Department of Defense (DOD)—to take a hard look at what works and what doesn’t in aid to fragile states, create a strategy for violence reduction in select countries, and better assess impact.
With over 15 years of experience providing assistance to fragile states, USAID should already have some thoughts on how to approach these questions. It would be great to get Green’s take on how USAID should adjust its procurement, program design, and implementation processes to respond quickly to emergent needs and adapt interventions in constantly evolving fragile environments.
One of the big threads in the recent US foreign assistance reform and redesign conversation has focused on how the fragmentation of aid across 20-plus agencies compromises its efficiency and effectiveness. Eliminating this fragmentation isn’t really on the table—it would be hugely complicated and require a complete rework of the distinct roles of various agencies. But it may be possible to ease the symptoms of fragmentation through improved coordination and collaboration.
This has been critical in the context of a cross-cutting initiative like Power Africa—and would likewise be necessary for doubling down on DRM. The new proposed US International Development Finance Corporation would need to coordinate closely with USAID. And the agency has highlighted the need for better coordination with DOD in its work in fragile states. For each of these needs, what can USAID do to improve coordination and collaboration? What does good coordination look like in practice?
*In FY16, 29 percent of USAID’s obligations went to the 20 most fragile states as ranked by the Fragile States Index.
One of the biggest questions donors grapple with is how to balance implementing specific projects with building local capacity to execute similar programming in the future. Indeed, this question is central to the conversation—now active at USAID—about how donors can “work themselves out of a job.” One good example of how this can look comes from the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) 2005-2010 partnership with Honduras. In this story, a key part of MCC’s legacy is not about what the agency funded but how it funded it. Through its commitment to country-led implementation, MCC helped set the stage for the government of Honduras to sustain and expand upon the structures and processes put in place to manage the MCC compact. The result: a new—and wholly Honduran—government unit that, over the last decade or so, has built a reputation for sound program management and a solid track record of efficient implementation.
At the origin: MCC’s commitment to country ownership
The idea that country ownership is critical for successful, lasting development programs is a central tenet of MCC’s model. A key way the agency puts this into practice is by giving the partner country the lead role in implementing the agency’s large-scale, five-year grant programs known as compacts. To do so, the partner country sets up and staffs an accountable entity called a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA)—usually as a separate government unit—to manage all aspects of the compact, including coordination with government ministries, procurement, contract management, maintenance of project timelines, and monitoring results. The MCA is overseen by a local board of directors with membership from government ministries, the private sector, and civil society. While MCAs usually wind down or dissolve at the end of a compact, for MCA-Honduras (MCA-H), implementing the compact was just the beginning.*
Expansion to manage other funds
Since the compact concluded in 2010, the government of Honduras has transformed MCA-H into a permanent government structure and expanded it to be the primary platform for managing donor funds in the areas of infrastructure, rural development, and food security. Rebranded as INVEST-Honduras in 2014, the unit has managed over $1 billion in funding from the government of Honduras and donors including the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and USAID.
As part of USAID’s own pledge to increase local partnerships, including government-to-government partnerships (G2G), USAID/Honduras had its eye on INVEST-Honduras, which it had watched develop through the MCC compact. USAID’s own standard pre-G2G procedure risk assessment tool reaffirmed INVEST-Honduras’ reputation for sound program management and relatively low risk. Thus, in 2014, the mission began funding a nutrition, watershed, and agricultural development program through INVEST-Honduras. Still ongoing, the program has expanded from its original $24 million to $60 million, and USAID points to additional benefits of directly funding INVEST-Honduras. Channeling money in this way has leveraged substantial cash contributions from the government of Honduras and better enabled the government to adopt the program as its own and build upon USAID interventions with other sources of funding.
On the front lines against corruption
Late last year, INVEST-Honduras was appointed by the president to chair a commission to liquidate and restructure the government’s road maintenance fund (Fondo Vial) in response to allegations of widespread dysfunction and corruption, including linkages with criminal networks. As of December, INVEST-Honduras is now executing all road maintenance functions, and is empowered to suspend personnel and revoke or renegotiate contracts with irregularities. The expectation is that such a move will close opportunities for corruption present in the previous model and increase the efficiency of contract execution.
Longevity and stability
INVEST-Honduras/MCA-H is now 13 years old. It has survived intact—with the same structure and largely the same staff—through five different governments. A number of factors seem to have contributed to its endurance, including competitive compensation and contracts that give donors a say over changes to key personnel, as well as a broad recognition that what the government was able to implement through the unit is worth preserving.
While MCC had a key role in INVEST-Honduras’ origin story, and other donors—including USAID—deserve credit for supporting its continuation, like all good country ownership stories this one ultimately owes its success to the local actor—in this case, the government of Honduras. And that’s how it should be. At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that donor funds—in and of themselves—will not “transform” a developing country. The best hope is that a donor seeds something that local actors sustain and build upon. So make no mistake, the credit here goes to the government of Honduras. But let’s give MCC a quiet nod, too.
*While it is not the norm for partner country governments to preserve MCA structures post-compact, Honduras is not the only example. MCAs have also persisted post-compact in Lesotho, Tanzania, Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.
This week, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) edged one step closer to securing new authorities that would better position the agency to undertake regional programming. On Wednesday, the House approved the AGOA and MCA Modernization Act (H.R. 3445), sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), which would authorize MCC to pursue concurrent compacts with a single country—allowing for one with the traditional, bilateral focus and one that is regional in nature. House passage tees up the bill for action in the Senate, where the Foreign Relations Committee greenlit a companion measure in October.
Similar provisions were included in fully five bills in the 114th Congress, but none made it over the finish line. Hopefully 2018 will be the year.
Why should MCC focus regionally?
MCC’s singular mission is to reduce poverty through economic growth—and important constraints to growth can be cross-border in nature. MCC also works in regions—like sub-Saharan Africa—that contain many small economies and fragmented markets. In such contexts, some of the highest returns come from facilitating regional connections.
Because MCC can only form bilateral agreements, the agency hasn’t been able to exploit potentially high-return regional opportunities, even though a number of MCC projects in sectors like infrastructure and energy have an inherent regional component. For instance, in a number of early compacts—Tanzania, Honduras, and Nicaragua—MCC rehabilitated roads up to a national border and then stopped.
In recent years, MCC has done more to incorporate regional considerations into its bilateral compact development processes, but its ability to address key regional constraints to growth remains limited.
Why is concurrent compact authority important?
Currently, MCC can have just one compact at a time per eligible country. So even where MCC partner countries are adjacent to one another—and have cross-border issues that hamper greater economic activity—the agency hasn’t been able to coordinate programming among them effectively since countries are rarely at the same stage of eligibility or program design at the same time. Consider West Africa. The map below suggests there may be some prospects for regional integration. But because programs began development at different times, the agency was unable to build in a regional lens from the outset.
Current MCC partner countries in West Africa with the year compact development began
With concurrent compact authority, MCC could pursue a regionally focused investment while still advancing separate bilateral programs with one or more of the participating countries on their own timelines.
If MCC does receive authority to pursue concurrent compacts, how should the agency approach regional engagement?
Regional programs are much more complex than bilateral programs, often take longer, and can carry more risk. There will be operational challenges as well, in terms of figuring out how to define regions, how to deal with suspension or termination of individual parties, how to design a multiparty implementation unit, and how to structure incentives across multiple parties when costs and gains are unlikely to be equally shared. These challenges are not insurmountable and should not preclude MCC from the opportunity to expand its impact and generate greater economic returns. In fact, as CGD’s Nancy Birdsall pointed out, MCC has some advantages over other funders of large, cross-border investments. What the list of challenges does suggest is that, if given the opportunity to pursue concurrent compacts, MCC should reiterate its pledge to move slowly and cautiously (e.g., starting with an initial pilot) and reaffirm its long-held commitment to measuring results and learning from the process.
Even before he took office, USAID Administrator Mark Green made clear his vision that the objective of foreign assistance “should be ending its need to exist.” While his predecessors espoused similarconvictions, Administrator Green’s pledge to make “working itself out of a job” central to USAID’s approach has focused renewed attention on the question of how to responsibly and sustainably transition countries away from traditional, grant-based development assistance.
In recent months, USAID has been working diligently to craft its approach to “strategic transitions,” framing the principles it will follow, the benchmarks that will help inform transition decisions, and the programs and tools it can bring to bear. This Thursday, in a public discussion with the agency’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA), USAID will outline its initial thinking about strategic transitions.*
In formulating its approach to strategic transitions, USAID should draw on the following 10 lessons that emerge from its own history and that of other bilateral donors:
Define transition goals, while recognizing broader US foreign policy objectives. Country transition plans should include both the development results and policy objectives USAID hopes to sustain as well as the actions required to achieve them, while taking into account the nature of the bilateral relationship.
Consider options short of complete aid exit. While complete withdrawal may be prudent in some circumstances, USAID should have leeway to pursue other options—such as approaching transition on a sector-by-sector basis, maintaining a development representative in country to support limited programming, or funding programs from Washington or a regional mission.
Recognize that coordination is crucial for effective transition planning. Close collaboration between USAID Washington and the field mission, as well as with other US government agencies, Congress, partner country stakeholders, implementing partners, and other bilateral and multilateral donors, is critical for transition success.
Assess and mitigate risks to sustaining development results (i.e., know who will fill the vacuum). USAID should protect the value of its past investments and seek to sustain its results by collaboratively identifying priority areas to be advanced by local actors (or other donors) and considering how to prepare the designated actors to take on new managerial or financial responsibilities.
Prioritize evaluation and costing of assistance activities that will be wound down. Critical to ensuring USAID-supported development results are sustained is understanding what (and whether) results have been achieved; costing exercises are similarly important for determining the appropriate actors—and the capacity of those actors—to take on additional obligations.
Transparently monitor progress on the transition plan. Monitoring progress toward the agency’s goals of ensuring sustained results can help USAID understand whether a transition approach is on track, and, if not, explore opportunities to adjust plans.
Ensure sufficient time for the above steps to occur. Sufficient time—at least 3-5 years—is necessary to meaningfully implement good transition practices; in contrast, overly compressed timelines can compromise US interests by hurting bilateral relations, undermining past development results, and/or leaving a void for competing powers to exploit.
Balance clarity and flexibility in the transition strategy. While it is important for USAID to define and clearly communicate its objectives, timeline, plans, etc., there should be enough flexibility to accommodate new information (e.g., from consultations) and contextual shifts (e.g., natural disasters, economic shocks) that emerge during the transition process.
Plan for mission staffing adjustments as part of the transition. USAID should recognize that transitions may require specific managerial skills and expertise that may not already exist within all missions; in addition, any staff downsizing must be sensitive to the need to preserve important relationships throughout the transition and support local staff in moving to new employment.
Learn and capture lessons. USAID should expand knowledge around common challenges and pitfalls by building into each transition process opportunities for real-time learning through experience sharing, as well as formal ex-post evaluation.
The pros and cons of using quantitative benchmarks to identify countries for transition—and an idea for how to do it
USAID has signaled interest in using quantitative benchmarks to evaluate a country’s readiness for transition. Using quantitative metrics ensures evidence is brought to bear on an important determination and can lend greater transparency, credibility, and accountability to the process. However, quantitative indicators will never provide a comprehensive picture of a country’s transition readiness, nor will they easily quantify broader US foreign policy and national security interests. Furthermore, data often carry some imprecision and are reported with a time lag. For these and other reasons, it is important that USAID not adopt a rigid or overly prescriptive interpretation of the quantitative criteria it develops.
We recommend a two-stage assessment for determining which countries might be ready for transition. The first stage would employ quantitative indicators to measure factors such as country need, fragility, good governance, business and economic environment, and financing capacity. The set of countries that show high performance across these measures would be analyzed further in the second-stage analysis that would employ both quantitative and qualitative information to assess whether national-level performance masks important subnational, gender-based, or other disparities, as well as a wider range of policy, institutional, and capacity issues most relevant to the sectors USAID funds.
Defining US engagement through the transition process and beyond
As USAID seeks to define a path for sustained partnership with transitioning countries, the agency should explore a full range of tools, some of which go beyond traditional, grant-based assistance.
The avenues of engagement that USAID pursues and the legacy structures it seeks to put in place will vary by country, depending on the nature of the agency’s existing investments, capacity and financing gaps in the partner country, the priorities of the partner country government, and the character of the broader bilateral relationship, among other things.
*Sarah Rose participated in an ACVFA working group focused on strategic transitions.
Every December, MCC’s board of directors meets to select the set of countries eligible for MCC’s compact or threshold programs. And each year, before the board meeting, CGD’s US Development Policy Initiative publishes a discussion of the overarching issues expected to impact the decisions alongside its predictions for which countries will be selected. Here’s what to watch for at the upcoming MCC board meeting on December 19.
The Overarching Questions
How might the prospect of a historically low budget constrain decision-making?
Budget uncertainty is an ever-present feature of MCC’s eligibility decisions since—in recent years—the appropriations process has rarely been finalized until well after the December meeting. But while the current appropriations limbo is nothing new, this year MCC is looking at the potential for a budget lower than any the agency has ever seen. The Trump administration’s FY2018 budget request slashed international affairs spending, and though MCC was spared the severe cuts dealt to other development accounts, the request of $800 million—if enacted—would be the agency’s lowest-ever appropriation. It might not end up there. The House Appropriations bill provided the $800 million included in the president’s request, but the Senate came in at $905 million, level funding compared to FY2017.
With up to three compacts expected to be approved in FY2018 and up to four more in the pipeline for subsequent fiscal years, competition for funds will be tight. MCC cannot afford to select all 31 countries that pass the scorecard (nor would all be top choices for reasons of size and policy performance). As always, the board will have to prioritize. The average number of new first or second compact selections in a year is three. This year may see fewer.
How will the new board interpret MCC’s good governance mandate?
This will be the fourth board meeting under the Trump administration, but only the second with political appointees in four of the five public positions (no nominee has been named to lead MCC), and the first to deal with country eligibility. Of course, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for all the board members. USAID Administrator Mark Green served five years on the MCC board in one of the four slots reserved for private members. The two current private members are veterans too. But the two other private sector slots remain unfilled, giving the administration more weight than usual in the board’s decisions.
This year’s selection decisions will require the board to make judgments about one of the core precepts of MCC’s model—that policy performance matters. MCC bases its eligibility criteria on governance quality to reward countries taking responsibility for their own development, create incentives for reform, and (potentially) increase the effectiveness of MCC investments. The eligibility criteria are also intended to depoliticize eligibility decisions, in recognition that blended objectives—supporting geostrategic partners and promoting development—can sometimes muddle development results. In practice, US geopolitical interests have certainly influenced the direction of some eligibility decisions, but rarely—if ever—trumped policy performance. The question at this year’s meeting will be how the MCC board, under the Trump administration, weighs good governance in the spirit of MCC’s founding model against the importance of a bilateral relationship, a factor the agency’s model seeks to downplay.
This year, the board faces decisions about large and/or strategically important countries—for example, the Philippines (the decision to watch this year) and Bangladesh—that come with important concerns about civil liberties and human rights. On the flip side, the board will need to define the next stage of MCC’s relationship with several countries that are already engaged in a threshold program or compact development that are smaller and less strategically important—for example, Lesotho, Timor-Leste, and Togo.
The Trump administration has provided some insight into its broad views on the issues at the heart of these eligibility decisions. For instance, President Trump has been largely silent (and at one point congratulatory) about human rights concerns in the Philippines. And the FY2018 budget request’s gutting of foreign assistance, which included zeroing out development-focused aid for 37 countries, suggests limited appetite for spending scarce development dollars where US strategic and economic interests are weaker. But these clues are well outside the context of MCC, so how the board considers good governance versus bilateral importance for MCC eligibility is unclear.
A Brief Overview of How MCC’s Selection Process Works
Here are four key things to know. For more detail, see MCC’s official document or my short synopsis (section “How the Selection Process Works,” p. 2-4).
MCC’s country scorecards provide a snapshot of a country’s policy performance compared to other low- and lower-middle-income countries. To “pass” the scorecard, a country must meet performance standards on 10 of the 20 indicators, including the Control of Corruption indicator and one of the democracy indicators (Political Rights or Civil Liberties).
The scorecard is only the starting point. The board also considers supplemental information about the policy environment, as well as whether MCC could work effectively in a country, and takes into consideration how much money the agency has.
Once a country is selected as eligible for a compact, it must typically be reselected each year until the compact is approved (usually 2-3 years).
A country can be considered for a second compact if it is within 18 months of completing its current program. In decisions about subsequent compacts, MCC looks for improved scorecard performance and considers the quality of partnership during the first compact.
Countries that Pass MCC’s FY2018 Scorecard Criteria
Low IncomeLower Middle Income
Micronesia, Fed Sts.
São Tomé and Principe
MCC Eligibility Predictions for FY2018
Below are my predictions for FY2018 MCC eligibility. I don’t cover all 83 countries since around two-thirds of them have low enough scorecard performance to make them unlikely candidates. Instead I restrict my analysis to:
All countries that pass the scorecard criteria, except those not in the running for any kind of eligibility decision. These are Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Georgia, Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Nepal, and Niger, all of which are currently implementing compacts and are not within the timeframe for subsequent compact eligibility.
Countries that don’t pass the scorecard but for which a decision about continued eligibility is expected.
Countries that don’t pass the scorecard but come close enough to be considered for threshold eligibility.
Click on any country name to read a brief analysis and rationale for my prediction.
First compact eligibility, new selection
Timor-Leste has a long and complicated history with MCC. It was selected as eligible for a compact in FY2006 but never finalized an agreement for unstated reasons—likely related to political unrest as well as repeatedly failing the Control of Corruption indicator (due mostly to its move from the low-income group to the more competitive lower-middle-income group). Instead, as somewhat of a consolation, MCC moved Timor-Leste to the threshold eligibility in FY2009, and the country implemented a program that concluded in 2014.
Last year, Timor-Leste (once again classified as low income) passed the scorecard for the first time in a decade, and the board selected it for a second threshold program. Now that Timor-Leste passes handily for a second year in a row, the board could opt to move Timor-Leste up to compact eligibility.
It’s not a sure thing, though. First of all, Timor-Leste is small and remote, and it’s hard to tell if the new board will find it appealing to spotlight the tiny half-island nation, especially when there are few other prospective new compact countries to pick this year. Timor-Leste also has a large petroleum sovereign wealth fund, raising questions about the country’s need for grant funding. And on top of that, its per capita income puts it near the threshold separating the low-income category from the more competitive lower-middle-income category. Timor-Leste may well bump into the higher category again soon, and if it does, it will almost certainly fail the scorecard again.
That said, the board also likely recognizes that Timor-Leste is a very poor country, despite the oil wealth that has made it nominally middle income. Nearly half the population lives under $1.90 a day, and its median household income per capita is just $2—on par with countries like Benin, Niger, and Tanzania. Furthermore, a dip in oil prices and declining production has hit Timor-Leste hard and presents risks for future fiscal sustainability. After 12 years of a tumultuous partnership, this might be the year MCC restarts compact eligibility with Timor-Leste.
Second compact eligibility, new selection
Malawi passes the scorecard for the 11th year in a row. When the board meets next week, the country will be nine months out from completing its compact and could be considered for second compact eligibility. While it’s a possible choice, there are a couple of factors that may make the board think twice. First, the last year of compact implementation is often the most intensive, as countries push to complete the program before the five-year time clock runs out. MCC may prefer that Malawi focus its finite capacity on successful implementation, without the distractions that come with developing a new program. In addition, while Malawi has an excellent record of passing the scorecard, second compact eligibility demands a higher bar and the expectation that a country will demonstrate improved scorecard performance, especially in the areas of control of corruption and democratic rights. Here, the case for Malawi is harder to make. Its Control of Corruption score has declined some in recent years, on the heels of a major 2013 corruption scandal that led donors to withhold funds. While this isn’t a statistically significant decline, it is noteworthy that Malawi has dropped over 15 percentage points in rank in the last five years and is now hovering close to the pass/fail threshold. Subsequent scandals have unfolded since 2013, and efforts to investigate them have faced hurdles. Arrests of protestors and treason charges against opposition figures also merit attention, as do the current government’s trumped up charges against a former president. With few contenders for new first or second compacts this year, Malawi may be in the running, but it is not a clear-cut choice.
Zambia passes the scorecard for the 10th year in a row. Its current compact will end in November 2018, almost a full year from next week’s board meeting. While this puts it within the 18-month window for second compact consideration, it’s not an obvious choice this year. MCC may prefer not to distract from the final, intensive year of compact implementation with preparations for a new program. It can also be hard to fully gauge the quality of the partnership, one of the criteria for second compact eligibility, when there is still a (very busy) year to go. Not only that, Zambia may not meet the higher bar for improved scorecard performance. Its Political Rights indicator has shown substantial decline due to a restrictive environment for political opposition before the country’s 2016 general elections, and increased restrictions on freedom of expression and demonstration. Because there are few compact contenders this year, and because Zambia is within the window for second compact selection, it will probably be under serious consideration. However, it seems more likely that MCC will wait to reassess the political environment and the quality of compact implementation after the current compact concludes.
Threshold program, new selection
The Gambia (probably)
MCC picked the Gambia for compact eligibility back in FY2006, but suspended it less than a year later due to concerns about the policy environment. A decade later, MCC and the Gambia seems set for a do-over. This year, the only criteria that keep the Gambia from passing the scorecard is the democracy hurdle. And there is reason to believe this may soon change. The indicators reflect the events and conditions of 2016, a year that culminated in the then president—who had been in power for 22 years—refusing to accept the results of an opposition electoral victory. In January, he finally agreed to leave office, leading to the country’s first transfer of power by popular election. The party of the new president won a sweeping victory in the mid-2017 parliamentary elections, which could facilitate further reforms. With a failing scorecard, the Gambia isn’t a contender for a compact yet, but it could be an attractive country for a threshold program. MCC has a strong presence in West Africa, which it has long been eyeing for regional opportunities. The agency is likely interested in testing how a partnership with the newly democratic Gambia would go, while watching the policy trajectory of the new government.
For seven years running, Bangladesh has either passed (twice) or come very close to passing the scorecard, falling just short on the Control of Corruption indicator. However, MCC has always decided against compact or threshold eligibility for Bangladesh. Its inconsistent passing of the Control of Corruption indicator has made it a risky bet for compact eligibility. And more broadly, MCC undoubtedly has had a watchful eye on constraints to political rights, civil liberties, and press freedom in Bangladesh. There have been no major advances in these areas that would suggest this year presents a particular opportunity for eligibility. Just the opposite, in fact, with a government crackdown on labor protestors earlier this year and reports that press freedom is increasingly under threat. General elections are also due at the end of next year, and Bangladesh has a history of political violence around its electoral cycles.
That said, MCC has been thinking about possible regional approaches in South Asia, and Bangladesh is a major player in the region. The US government may also be particularly interested in supporting Bangladesh at this time, given its role on the front lines of the Rohingya crisis, having received over a million refugees from neighboring Myanmar.
The board is almost certainly giving Bangladesh some serious thought this year. Though its governance issues raise questions about its fit with MCC’s good governance mandate, the board could consider the country for threshold program eligibility. A threshold program would allow work to begin on initial phases of a partnership, but afford MCC time to watch how next year’s elections and the broader human rights context unfold. One important consideration, however, is that threshold programs are small (around $20 million over three or so years), and therefore may not get a lot of attention in Bangladesh, which receives over $4 billion in foreign aid each year. So even compact consideration may not be entirely off the table. Either way, Bangladesh isn’t a highly likely pick. But it shouldn’t be ruled out.
First/second compact eligibility, reselection to continue compact development
Burkina Faso (probably)
Burkina Faso was initially selected as eligible for a second compact last year. It passes the scorecard for the seventh year in a row and has been working with MCC on a constraints to growth analysis that will inform the focus of the compact.
Lesotho—which holds the distinction of being the only current candidate country to pass the scorecard every single year since MCC’s inception—was first selected for second compact eligibility in FY2014. It’s had a bit of a rough road since then. For the last two years, the board deferred a reselection decision due to uncertainty surrounding how the country would address serious concerns about the behavior of the military, including allegations that the armed forces had been active in stifling the opposition and those loyal to the prior regime. Just before last year’s selection-focused board meeting, there were early signs of progress in Lesotho, and the board decided to see how well they would be implemented over the coming year. Instability still persists in the mountain kingdom, but the government of Lesotho has taken steps that demonstrate the seriousness with which it is taking the Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s recommendations to address its challenges. It has launched a reform process, and President Thabane recently requested a SADC stabilizing force to provide protection to the government as it implements the regional body’s recommendations to arrest and try military officers and tackle security sector reforms. The board will probably take a positive view of these recent steps and give Lesotho the green light to proceed with compact development.
Since it was first selected for a second compact in FY2015, annual eligibility determinations for Mongolia have been anything but straightforward. In FY2016, Mongolia’s per capita income briefly rose above the ceiling for MCC candidacy, taking it out of the pool of country scorecards. Since it wasn’t a candidate country, the board couldn’t reselect it; however, they did reaffirm the agency’s commitment to continuing to develop a second compact with Mongolia. Last year, Mongolia was back in the candidate pool, but failed the Control of Corruption hurdle. The board wisely reselected it anyway, recognizing that the failure was not indicative of an actual policy decline. There are no such hitches for Mongolia this year, which passes the scorecard once again.
The Philippines (hard to predict, but unlikely)
As I explain in more detail here, the Philippines decision is the one to watch this year. The Philippines, an important strategic ally for the United States, has had a long partnership with MCC. It had a threshold program from 2006 to 2009, a compact from 2011 to 2016, and was selected as eligible for a second compact in FY2015. But since the inauguration of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte in mid-2016, some serious questions have emerged about whether the Philippines continues to meet MCC’s good governance criteria. In particular, there are concerns about Duterte’s support for the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people suspected of involvement in illicit drug activity. This issue—in addition to the Filipino president’s inflammatory anti-American (and specifically anti-Obama) rhetoric—led the board to defer a decision about whether to reselect the Philippines last year. A vote up or down would have constituted a major foreign policy decision just weeks before the new Trump administration would take office. Over the past year, Presidents Trump and Duterte have developed an amicable relationship. Trump recently returned from a successful trip to the Philippines, and, over the course of his first year in office, he has been largely silent about (or arguably supportive of) the extrajudicial killings.
Another factor the board will have to weigh is that the Philippines doesn’t pass the scorecard this year, failing the critical Control of Corruption indicator. While this might appear important, it should really be less of a concern than the actual, identified human rights issues described above. The decline in the Philippines’ score is slight (not remotely significant), and the country has long ranked near middle of the pack on this indicator, fluctuating above and below the passing threshold. Its failing score is not a signal that it has suddenly become more corrupt. It does, however, offer an “easy out,” giving the board a way to curtail the relationship with the Philippines without being explicit about the human rights concerns the Trump administration has chosen to downplay. While “easy,” it’s not the right rationale. Instead, the board should refer to MCC’s criteria that countries must meet a higher bar on the scorecard for a second compact. The downward movement on the Civil Liberties indicator (reflecting, in part, the drug-related killings) suggests the Philippines probably doesn’t clear that hurdle.
The Philippines is a hard prediction to make. On the one hand, the US government is undoubtedly sensitive about its relationship with an important geostrategic ally whose current leadership has responded to US criticism by threatening American interests and edging closer to China. On the other hand, it’s hard to make the case that the Philippines meets MCC’s good governance standards for a second compact. I’m predicting that the board will ultimately vote not to reselect the Philippines this year. A different outcome would not be surprising. But it would be unfortunate for what it would say about how the current board interprets MCC’s good governance mandate.
Senegal was initially selected as eligible for a second compact in FY2016. It passes the scorecard for the 11th year in a row and has been working with MCC to develop a program in the energy sector.
Sri Lanka (probably)
Sri Lanka was selected for threshold program eligibility in FY2016 and then—before signing a threshold program—for compact eligibility last year. Since then, it’s been developing a compact on an accelerated timeline thanks to the constraints to growth analysis that it conducted as part of threshold program eligibility. The proposed programs will focus on regional transportation and access to land.
Tunisia was initially selected for a compact last year. It passes the scorecard for the second year in a row and has been working with MCC on an updated constraints to growth analysis that will inform the focus of the compact.
Countries that pass the scorecard but are unlikely to be selected
Bhutan, Comoros, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, São Tomé and Principe, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu
All have passed the scorecard in several prior years but have been passed over for eligibility, presumably because of their small size (all have populations under a million). Though MCC does not have an official minimum size requirement for compact eligibility, the board has demonstrated a preference against the selection of small countries.
Cabo Verde is also small (population 540,000), but, unlike the small countries listed above, it has had a long partnership with MCC, completing its second of two compacts in November this year. If the board were to select Cabo Verde again it would be for a third compact. MCC absolutely should be given the green light to pursue third compacts with select partners. However, because not all MCC stakeholders (including some members of Congress) buy into this idea wholeheartedly, it would be risky for MCC to pick tiny Cabo Verde as the vanguard of a potential new cohort of third compact partners.
India regularly passes the scorecard, but neither it nor MCC—not to mention many members of Congress—think a compact is an appropriate tool for the bilateral partnership. India is, after all, the world’s seventh-largest economy and a foreign aid provider, not to mention its over $300 billion in foreign exchange reserves. MCC and India have, however, discussed how they might collaborate on MCC’s programming in South Asia, including in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Because Indonesia’s compact ends within 18 months, it could be considered for a second compact. It’s an unlikely choice, however. This is only the second year that Indonesia has passed the scorecard (the other time was in FY2009, the year it was selected for its first compact). This makes it a risky bet since it’s far from clear that it would continue to pass with any consistency in the future. In addition, the ability for an MCC compact to affect poverty reduction and growth is relatively limited in the world’s fourth biggest country and 16th largest economy, which gets trillions of dollars of foreign direct investment each year. That said, Indonesia is a strategic partner of the US government. If it continues to pass the scorecard for a few years, a more serious conversation about a second compact might arise in the future. But not this year.
Kosovo passes the scorecard for the second time this year. When it first passed, in FY2016, it was selected for compact eligibility. Last year, however, Kosovo was downgraded to threshold program eligibility due to a failing score on the Control of Corruption indicator. Though MCC cited Kosovo’s troublesome trajectory on the indicator as rationale for the shift, there was zero actual evidence of a real policy decline. The fact that it passes again this year (with its highest score since independence) makes MCC’s end-of-2016 professed dissatisfaction with Kosovo’s indicator performance appear, retrospectively, even more off base. Kosovo just signed a $49 million threshold program (the second largest in MCC history), however, so MCC probably won’t choose it for a compact again this year. But the Kosovo story amplifies the need for MCC to change its approach to the Control of Corruption indicator for reselection decisions.
Tanzania was selected for second compact eligibility in FY2013, but MCC suspended the partnership in 2016 based on the flawed and unrepresentative conduct of a 2015 election in Zanzibar, as well as moves by the government to stifle dissent and control information. There has been no appreciable improvement in these areas, so the board is unlikely to reselect Tanzania this year.
Togo passes the scorecard for the second year in a row. It was selected as eligible for a threshold program in FY2016 and is close to finalizing a program focused on policy reform in the information/communications technology and land sectors. However, at the board meeting in September, MCC flagged concerns with the political rights and civil liberties environment in Togo and indicated that it would not sign the threshold program agreement until there were clear signs of improvement. This suggests that Togo will not be moved up to compact eligibility this year.
On the heels of President Trump’s trip to the Philippines, a bilateral foreign policy question looms. Next month, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s board of directors will meet to select the set of countries that will be eligible for the agency’s large-scale grant programs. One of the decisions on the table will be whether to continue the partnership with the Philippines. The board needs to formally reselect the country this year for program development to proceed. The Philippines has been a long-term partner for MCC, having completed a threshold program (2006–2009) and a compact (2011–2016). In late 2014, MCC gave the Philippines the green light for the next step, selecting it to start developing a second compact. However, over the last year and a half, questions have emerged about whether the Philippines continues to meet MCC’s good governance criteria. In one month, MCC and its board will have to answer those lingering questions.
For background on MCC’s selection process, visit MCC’s official document or my short synopsis (see section “How the Selection Process Works,” p. 2-4).
The Philippines and the United States have long been strong allies. Close military and security cooperation, substantial trade and investment, and immigration have contributed to what both countries have typically viewed as an overwhelmingly favorable relationship. The inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte in mid-2016, however, created something of a rift. At the outset of his tenure, Duterte engaged in inflammatory anti-American (and specifically anti-Obama) rhetoric, threatening to “break up with America.” This came largely in response to concerns voiced by President Obama and others over Duterte’s support for the extrajudicial killings of thousands of individuals suspected of involvement in illicit drug activity. When MCC’s board faced the decision last year of whether to give the Philippines the go-ahead to continue working toward a second compact, it deferred, opting to take a wait-and-see stance rather than a forward-leaning foreign policy decision. That decision, which could have been interpreted as either a stamp of approval or a punitive action with respect to a significant ally would have occurred just weeks before the new Trump administration was to take office.
Over the past year, anti-American rhetoric has waned as Presidents Trump and Duterte have forged a more friendly relationship. And Trump has been virtually silent on the human rights concerns expressed by the previous administration—even telling Duterte during an early phone call that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
This sets up the MCC board for a tough call. Should good governance-focused MCC take a stand on the Philippines’ serious human rights concerns even though the White House has been ambivalent, at best, about the issue? How much will the answer to this question be informed by pressure to treat delicately an important geostrategic ally whose current leadership has responded to US criticism by threatening American interests and edging closer to China?
In making that decision, another important factor will come into play. The Philippines doesn’t pass MCC’s scorecard criteria this year, falling just short on the critical Control of Corruption indicator. In some ways, that may seem convenient. Pointing to a failing Control of Corruption indicator would theoretically give the board cover to pull back MCC’s engagement with the Philippines without having to (a) express concerns about other governance issues and (b) awkwardly put MCC, as opposed to the State Department, at the leading edge of that conversation.
As tempting as that rationale might be, it’s also wrong. The Philippines’ failing score does NOT mean that the country is suddenly much more corrupt. In fact, the change in score is slight and not even close to statistically significant. The simple fact is that the Philippines has always been near the middle of the pack on this indicator, fluctuating above and below the passing threshold (in its eight years as a lower-middle-income country, it’s passed the Control of Corruption indicator three times). Simply put, its measured corruption performance this year is not meaningfully different than the year it was selected.
As I’ve arguedmanytimes, MCC should not necessarily curtail a country’s compact development process just because it fails the Control of Corruption hurdle. For corruption to be a valid justification, MCC should be able to point to a concrete decline in actual policy—not just in score. MCC’s official guidance suggests this is the agency’s approach, as well, noting that the board should use its judgement—informed by its understanding of data limitations—to interpret what the scorecard says about policy performance. Unfortunately, the board’s interpretation of the data has sometimes been more rigid than the indicators’ imprecision allows. For instance, the board decided not to reselect Benin, Sierra Leone (FY2014), and Kosovo (FY2017) for compact eligibility when they narrowly failed the Control of Corruption indicator, even though MCC acknowledged (for the former two at least) there had been no deterioration in policy. Sierra Leone and Kosovo were relegated to MCC’s much smaller threshold program. Benin was reselected for compact eligibility the following year, but only after compact development was slowed by the earlier decision. Earlier this year, I was hopeful that MCC would formalize an approach to corruption that would—for decisions about whether to reselect countries to continue compact development—reduce the need for the board to trade off appearing to “play by the rules” (countries must pass the Control of Corruption hurdle) and the imperative to use data wisely. The current guidance isn’t explicit about this, leaving open the possibility that the board could use the Control of Corruption indicator as an “easy out.” I hope that’s not the route they’ll take.
I hope that instead, the board gives greater scrutiny to other aspects of the Philippines’ scorecard data. For eligibility for a second compact, MCC is clear that there is a higher “good governance” bar. The agency looks not just for a passing scorecard, but for improved performance during the course of the previous compact. In the past, I’ve highlighted why this can sometimes be an impractical criterion, but for the Philippines, there are some signals the board should heed. Notably, while the Philippines still easily passes the Civil Liberties indicator, Freedom House (the indicator’s source) gave the Philippines a “downward trend arrow” due to the extrajudicial killings associated with the war on drugs, as well as threats against civil society activists. The Philippines also fails the Rule of Law indicator (which covers events of 2016 and earlier). The decline is slight, and, given its longstanding middle-of-the-pack rank, it has failed this indicator before. But it will be useful for MCC and the board to understand what is behind the decline and how assessments have changed over the past year.
All this makes the Philippines the decision to watch at MCC’s upcoming December board meeting. In the balance are not only the fate of the Philippines’ compact, but also important questions of how the new board under the Trump administration interprets MCC’s good governance mandate and whether it will use data wisely.
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