It had the feel of a stop along a farewell tour, but I don't think the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) minded the visit--and praise--they got from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she stopped by MCC headquarters this week. Clinton applauded the MCC’s open, data-driven approach and commitment to learning while doing, saying it “set the stage” for the Obama administration’s broader development reforms that are still underway.
In her remarks (which are worth reading or watching in full), Clinton recalls her promise to “elevate development and diplomacy to be on a par with defense…as part of our smart power framework for foreign policy and national security.” (This is a promise she explained in detail at CGD.) She told MCC staff she believes the US has gone a long way towards achieving that but needs to continue to reform.
Clinton gave the MCC gold stars for showcasing “some of our best thinking about how to do development for the 21st century” and providing “information and inspiration” to reform the rest of the US development apparatus. Clinton also praised MCC for putting a premium on results, data analysis and transparency. She told the MCC staff:
Because of the standards that you’ve set and the accountability and evaluations that you have imposed upon yourself, we are beginning to get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
Now, that is not always popular, and it’s not always easy, because we’re all human. People get used to doing things a certain way, and then can, on an anecdotal level, see results that reinforce the patterns that they’ve engaged in. But we can no longer afford to do development like that. We have to have better data, harder analysis, more accountability, both for us, but also for the countries and people with whom we work. We look to MCC for helping to bring about that strategic shift that we’re making in our development work from aid to investment and looking at the risk-reward calculation, literally expecting to be able better to calculate a rate of return.
We have to ask hard questions. We have to be unafraid to expose our own shortcomings and the problems that we have. Some people worry about that, that that will mean that the Congress or the American public won’t support us. I actually think it’s contrary. I think greater transparency, internally and externally, gives us a stronger platform to build on for the programs that we think are worth investing in, and MCC is certainly at the top of the line there.
It has to feel pretty good for MCC staff to hear the Secretary of State not just say “good job” but to reflect a nuanced understanding of the MCC’s mission, approach and why the tough decisions that set MCC apart—from selecting countries, sometimes cutting off funding and publicly evaluating impact—matter. It also puts pressure on the MCC to keep the bar high.
Clinton even praised the MCC’s innovative board structure, saying she highly values the board’s outside, independent, private representatives. Hear, hear! Now if only she could nudge the White House to fill those two long-vacant private MCC board seats!
In response to a question about what the Obama administration’s development agenda should focus on in the next four years, Clinton offered three suggestions: more rigorous analysis to go along with the reforms; better coordination across the government and congressional committees; and more achievable cost-savings including through better foreign aid data, cost-benefit analysis and procurement reform. These sound good to me, but oh how I wish we could hear more of Clinton’s insights on how her successor and other development policymakers might overcome the logjams that have, up until now, prevented these reforms from moving faster.