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As G20 Meets, Millennium Challenge Corporation Sees Rising Global Poverty

The decisions made at the G20 summit in London to solve the global economic crisis could directly affect the amount of aid going to developing countries. Large amounts of US government aid are funneled through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The MCC is based on the principle that "aid is most effective when it reinforces good governance, economic freedom and investments in people."

Rodney Bent, acting chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Account, spoke to VOA about the issues he's following at the G20 summit. "Global poverty is a global problem, so obviously what comes out of the G20 is going to be of interest to everybody," he says.

The MCC works in partnership with about 35 countries. "All of whom are touched in one way or another by the economic crisis. What can be done in a concerted way? What resources are going to be made available, how are they going to be used? Those are things that we're looking for," he says.

Asked about the effect of the economic crisis on MCC programs, Bent says, "Almost all of them have been touched in one way. Obviously, for example, if you're doing trade capacity building…working on ports and roads, if trade volume diminishes sharply, that means that the kind of things that we're trying to promote are just hat much more difficult."

For example in Zambia, a potential MCC partner, he says, "When copper prices go down it makes it much tougher for very poor countries and poor households to cope. They don't have the money for food, let alone things like education or health care."

So developing countries are keeping a close eye on what happens in London. Bent says, "I think they want a variety of things…. One, obviously, they are concerned about the levels of aid, but, two, perhaps even more importantly, it's the quality of assistance. Are these programs geared to what the countries themselves want to do? Are they really geared towards results, toward accountability, towards helping citizens on these poorest countries really advance their lives?"

The economic crisis is causing members of Congress to keep a closer eye on spending, including foreign aid.

Bent says, "People hear, and I certainly hear it from members of Congress and their staff, that we need to take care of our own first, that there's kind of a turning inward. I think that's a mistake simply because trade is hugely important to us that our security is in some way dependent on helping to eliminate poverty everywhere. You want to work with countries that share the same ideals, the same openness of political systems and markets and the same desire to help the poorer citizens. It means that there's going to be more of an extended debate about what is foreign aid used for and how well is it used. And are we really squeezing every dollar of benefit out that we can."

While no congressional hearings are yet scheduled on the Millennium Challenge Corporation's budget, Bent expects there will be.

"One of the joys of being in the Executive Branch is working with Congress…. The appropriations staff always asks extremely good questions, extremely pointed questions. And I'm sure that when the president's budget comes out later this spring, that there will be hearings scheduled on this."

Some fear that with the economic downturn, the Millennium Development Goals may be in jeopardy. He says, "I think the goals are incredibly ambitious and the only way they can be achieved is if we all work together. And it seems to me that's an equal responsibility for the countries that we're working with. So, if you're going to cut poverty in half, if you're going to increase the number of kids that are going to school, that's something you can't do unilaterally as a donor. It has to be a two-way partnership with these countries."

While solutions are needed for the economic crisis, the food crisis continues in many parts of the world. Bent says, "Food security has, I think, been one of the key issues for this administration…. Certainly we have been doing a lot of work on food security, which has to go beyond just increasing agricultural production. It has to get to poor families, whether they're urban or elsewhere. Do they have the means to buy the food that they need? And again, that gets to the partnership angle."

For countries seeking assistance from the MCC, Bent says, "The hallmarks of the Obama administration are going to be transparency, accountability, listening, partnership. And I think that listening is a good thing, both ways…that we have much to learn from each other."