Congress should decrease politicization at the Millennium Challenge Corporation

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The recent resignation of Robert Blau, who was President Trump’s appointee as the interim chief executive of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), shed some light on the troubles at the small, but effective development agency. Congress should pay attention. 

Blau’s yearlong tenure at the MCC began with his appointment as vice president of compact operations and was filled with controversy over his divisive comments on race, gender, sexuality, media and politics. Even so, the White House promoted him earlier this summer to Acting CEO. He now leaves the agency stacked with inexperienced political appointees who could jeopardize the success MCC has had in lifting millions out of poverty.

{mosads}MCC is a unique gem. Created by the George W. Bush administration with strong bipartisan support in Congress, MCC delivers foreign assistance under the premise that aid is most effective when it rewards countries for good governance, economic freedom and investments in people.

Whether it is expanding the supply of water in Mongolia, increasing the availability of electricity in Nepal, or investing in education in Georgia, just three of the initiatives I helped lead when I worked there, the agency effectively reduces poverty by stimulating private-sector led economic growth.

The MCC model prioritizes transparency, accountability and country ownership, putting countries in the driver’s seat to chart their own development path. MCC was created to be data-driven, making aid investments based on evidence and cost-benefit analysis and a prospective partner government’s own willingness to reduce poverty.

From its creation in 2004, the MCC has won high marks with Congress and the development community for the transparency of its decision-making. This model has earned MCC bipartisan support from successive presidential administrations and Congress because it ensures that long-term development, not short-term politics, guides how the agency operates. It’s also why MCC has become a best practice leader within the global development community and why politicizing the agency today could undermine its mission tomorrow.

I saw firsthand what politicization looks like when I worked there as the deputy vice president for Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. Blau was my boss.

Under his leadership, the MCC went from being a nonpartisan, apolitical agency to one where leadership openly voiced partisan political views, questioned the importance of diversity and supported appointments of unqualified staff. The rest of us put our heads down and focused on developing and implementing billions of dollars of investments in power, transport, education, health and other critical services — work that is about poverty reduction, not political games. 

Since I resigned earlier this year, the White House has continued to insert political appointees at MCC at all levels at an unprecedented pace. Today, MCC has 14 political appointees — double the number from the Obama administration. All 14 political appointees are white and all six current MCC Board of Directors are white men. Only three people of color are left at MCC in senior management roles — career or political. 

Congress originally gave MCC flexible hiring authorities – which are the envy of many other U.S. agencies — to make sure it could attract the best development talent. Technically competent and diverse leadership are essential to fulfilling this mission. But this flexibility is now being abused. 

As a sign of confidence, Congress has invested almost a billion dollars a year in MCC, a small percentage of the overall foreign aid budget, which itself is a tiny slice of the U.S. federal budget. But MCC punches far above its weight, showing demonstrable results in reducing poverty and forging stronger relationships with key U.S. partners.

For its success to continue, Congress needs to take a closer look at the increasing politicization at MCC. They must exercise their oversight and ask tough questions on how appointments are being made, what steps the agency will take to protect and promote diversity and how programs will continue to support women, girls and vulnerable populations. They should make sure staff and management feel safe in reporting any workplace discrimination or abuse of power and authority.

MCC needs experienced leadership that can advance the agency’s mission, respect and trust technical staff, represent its core values and be accountable to Congress, its partners around the world and the development community. The Senate should push for that leadership to happen swiftly while also ensuring MCC remains a nonpartisan, technical agency.

President Bush and Congress created MCC to be a different kind of development agency, partnering only with well-governed countries that fight corruption and protect their citizens. It would be ironic if the current Administration and Congress abandoned that logic now in overseeing how MCC is governed today.

Fatema Z. Sumar worked at MCC from May 2015 to February 2018. Today, she is the vice president for Global Programs at Oxfam America.

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