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by Christopher Datta

Across the developing world the United States runs aid programs that have met the laudable goal of reducing infant mortality and maternal death resulting from childbirth. We have done some astonishing things, such as completely eliminating smallpox. Now we are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by working to equip local communities with the tools needed to fight back against the coronavirus. Effective and inexpensive vaccines are everywhere administered to countless children who would otherwise die or be crippled by disease. More vaccines are on the way, perhaps even one for malaria, one of the biggest killers in the developing world. It is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet the impact of these efforts in many countries could well be a legacy of war, famine, misery and the creation of new and even worse diseases.

I pose a question. It is a shocking question, and I do not have the answer, but I pose it because I think it needs attention. The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, prides itself on the fact that it can prove it has saved the lives of tens of thousands of women and children through its maternal health programs. But what has been accomplished?

The great social philosopher and satiric writer, Jonathan Swift, pondered this same question back in 1729 in his famous satiric essay, A Modest Proposal. In his essay, Swift satirically recommended that it would be more humane for the rich to buy and eat the year-old babies of the poor than to let them grow up to lead hopeless lives of misery and destitution.

Obviously, Swift did not seriously mean that the people of Ireland should sell their children for meat. His argument, of course, was that his society needed to find a way to deal more effectively with widespread poverty.

Are We Really Helping?

We face, I think, a similar dilemma in our current development work around the world. When we go into societies that cannot provide the basic services needed to support their citizens, in which the rule of law has no meaning, and in which real political participation is not possible, are we really helping by saving lives that in the future cannot be sustained? Are children who are rescued from death by polio, only to grow up in crushing poverty, without education or opportunity or hope, really saved?

In Sierra Leone, where my adopted son is originally from, this very crushing poverty led many young men and boys to join a murderous rebellion that tore their society apart and, in the end, only further destroyed the infrastructure of the nation and its institutions.

A school in Sierra Leone destroyed during the 1991-2002 civil war
A school in Sierra Leone destroyed during the 1991-2002 civil war.

I am not proposing we do less to help people. We must do more. We are a great nation, with abundant wealth and power, but we need to do a better job of development work. Our record so far is not that encouraging; not for want of trying or noble purpose, but because so often we don’t really know how to do it.

What we want to accomplish is great and worthy of us, but international aid is extremely complicated, and is often made much less effective by shortsighted domestic politics, our short attention spans, and by the American notion that we can fix everything and solve every problem. The result is an understandable frustration with how little we often achieve.

We should invest time, effort and money on better studying the issue. To do this, we ought to fund international institutions entirely devoted to developing strategies that will work in helping poor countries to develop healthy and sustainable societies by creating holistic approaches to the problem. In my opinion, current research overly focuses on economic development, without an equal emphasis on social development and on building the political and institutional underpinnings (especially in the area of the rule of law) required for real and sustainable development to take hold. As Swift described almost 300 years ago, it does little good to deliver healthcare to mothers and children when the people saved are destined to grow up in hopeless environments that only foster the very poverty, violence and extremism we are fighting to end.

How do we effectively give a country a boost that needs a boost and will benefit from it, versus doing for a nation what it cannot do for itself and where the political, legal and social environments stifle entrepreneurship and social participation and, therefore, make development impossible?

The Millennium Challenge Account

President George W. Bush proposed an excellent model for how to start with his Millennium Challenge Account. I would end USAID as we know it today and use the Millennium Challenge Account, or MCA, as a jumping-off point for restructuring development programs. With an organization such as this handling development. I would recast USAID solely as a disaster relief agency, including for such things as handling Ebola or coronavirus outbreaks.

The genius of the MCA is that it deals with something USAID is poorly equipped to handle, and whose institutional culture, in fact, resists confronting, which is that political, social and economic development all go hand-in-hand, and you cannot have one without the others.

The philosophy behind the MCA is that, instead of giving small amounts of money to a lot of countries, we consolidate our funds and focus on those nations that have the social, political and economic capacity to support and nurture development. Those countries that meet such criteria, which have the capacity to benefit from a boost, would receive massive infusions of funding to help jump-start the process. This is what the Marshall Plan did in Europe after World War II with great success. The capacity for development existed in Europe, and we provided the funds required to get the engine started. There are other success stories: South Korea, for instance. Where we were successful, why? Where we failed, why? Study and use these models to chart future efforts.

The other benefit of this approach is that it treats the target country as a partner in the development process instead of as a dependent. Partnerships more often work, dependency so often fails.

The Case of Zimbabwe

In countries where these conditions do not exist, we should not offer development assistance. We are wasting our limited resources. An example is Zimbabwe. The former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was a tyrant and he ruled a country that, under his authority, was destroying itself. Nothing we could do was going to prevent that. In addition, I have little confidence that the new government in Zimbabwe will make a significant change in the country’s direction now that Mugabe is gone. I do not think that even humanitarian assistance has been of much use in Zimbabwe, since Mugabe did all he could to block its distribution to the neediest and rerouted it to his supporters to the extent he could. In the end, all we might well have accomplished was to extend the time that Mugabe could hang on to power.

In cases like Zimbabwe, we should instead encourage and promote political evolution while also understanding the limits of what outsiders can accomplish.

There is, of course, the “Iraq” solution of sending in outside forces, seizing control of the country and creating a new social order. But this approach is difficult, risky, seldom works and is expensive, while helping those who are ready, willing and able to help themselves is productive and creates good models for others to follow.

The Case of Yemen

Yemeni girls in a classroom. Photo by Clinton Doggett for USAID
Yemeni girls in a classroom. Photo by Clinton Doggett for USAID

Of course, even an MCA-style development model requires proper coordination and implementation; without that the money will not accomplish its intended purpose. My friend, Thomas Krajeski, served as Ambassador to Yemen from 2004-2007. He dealt with the successor to the Millennial Challenge Account, the Millennial Challenge Corporation. In the end he thought USAID was needed to assist because the MCC lacked the staff in-country to properly oversee and monitor the program. This is a weakness of the MCC that needs fixing, and this is what he had to say about how it worked in Yemen:

“My experience with both USAID and MCC in Yemen in 2004-2007 was decidedly mixed. It was hard to coordinate the two programs and I was very wary of the political pressures from DC on MCC funding, and the ability of the MCC to monitor USG funds in a hugely corrupt government. (Yemeni President) Ali Abdullah Saleh loved the idea of the MCC, which was often described to him as a barrel of cash to spend as he wanted, provided he made some progress on building democratic institutions, judicial independence, women’s rights, and a few other very hard to measure areas. He disliked most of our USAID programs that focused on education, women’s health, water use, small farming, and other local projects because he couldn’t control them or steal very much from them. He also hated my meddling in local affairs, dealing directly with tribal leaders instead of going through his ministries.

“MCC waved more than $150 million in front for the Yemeni president. USAID had about $7 million. In the end, Yemen got a small MCC ‘threshold’ program of about $30 million almost entirely based on the Bush Administration’s desperation to include an Arab country in the program. It was a lot of smoke and mirrors. And, in the very end, Saleh lost the money when he released early a couple of the guys convicted of blowing up the USS Cole in Aden.

“The small staff at MCC were all very professional but they had no way to monitor the funds in country or keep track of the ‘scorecard’ used to measure progress. In Yemen, I made my USAID director the chief coordinator of all development funding whatever its source. MCC in Washington accepted that decision at the working level but political appointees, and some Hill staffers, were unhappy.

“USAID may be a bloated ineffective bureaucracy at times whose programs are often a mishmash of humanitarian and political stuff, but it is better than simply shoveling cash into the coffers of various corrupt leaders around the world.”

The Right Approach

The trouble with the MCA and its successor, the MCC, is that although it is an excellent concept, it lacks proper implementation and, as previously stated, it needs closer in-country program management. President Bush never got the money for the MCA that he proposed, and never made a serious attempt to pressure Congress to allocate the funds. As Ambassador Krajeski experienced with the MCC, it became susceptible to political considerations and lacked the ability to properly monitor the outcomes in the countries chosen.

The holistic approach to development work, focusing simultaneously on social, political and economic development, is the right one when properly implemented, managed and better focused on the countries that can benefit from it.

Make USAID focus on disaster relief. When disasters strike, as a wealthy people it is our moral responsibility to help. But separate that from development work, which is an entirely different mission, and where we need an effective and better managed MCC. It is the right approach.End.


Christopher Datta

Christopher Datta is a retired Foreign Service Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State. Mr. Datta is the author of a memoir, Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge.


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