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Africans Excited and Frustrated With US Millennium Aid

As more African countries try to get funding through the U.S government's anti-poverty Millennium Challenge Account, applicants say they are excited by the prospects, but frustrated by difficulties in getting money.

Benin is one of several impoverished African countries trying to get money from the U.S. government through its Millennium Challenge Account, for which billions of dollars have been earmarked by Congress, but little actually spent.

Benin is one of the eligible countries, on the basis of low per-capita income and having also passed stringent requirements that include good governance, open markets, and low corruption.

The name "Challenge Account" was devised because the countries themselves conceive their development projects, while involving private partners and civil society groups.

The account is administered by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which has a Chief Executive Officer, and a public-private board of directors, that include the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury.

Cotonou-based government official Simon Pierre Adovelande is leading a team of several dozen economists trying to prepare a proposal that would convince this board to give Benin access to $200 million. The aim of the project, Mr. Adovelande tells VOA, is to create a better business environment for his Gulf of Guinea country.

"It is a challenge because we have a lot of projects in our country," said Simon Pierre Adovelande. "We have success, we have failings. Then, for me, it is how to make one of the most successful projects. It is very exciting, but also, it's hard work to achieve that."

Mr. Adovelande says he worked more than 10 years for the United Nations, so he says he is used to all the paperwork.

He says when the United States established the Millennium Challenge Account in 2004, many Africans believed they would get a lot of American help quickly. He says more information is needed about the whole process, now and especially when the projects come on line.

"I think that one of the keys to make a program a success is the transparency, to let all the people know what are the contents and also at the time of implementation to make reports, regular reports, let people know through the media, the Internet, but also through our local channels of information to share the things with the people so they feel they are part of the program," he said. "It is very important."

Two African countries, Madagascar and Cape Verde, have already signed what are called compacts, or agreements of grants.

Madagascar, an island nation in the south of the continent, is to get $109 million over four years to pursue an assortment of development projects. Cape Verde, an island nation in the west, is getting about the same amount over five years. Ten percent of the sum, though, will go to administration costs and monitoring.

Outside auditors will be called in to make sure there is as little corruption as possible.

But the U.S. government's money is still on hold, amid more steps needed to secure the effective start of the projects.

An Africa aid expert, Sylvain Browa, who is tracking implementation of the challenge account for the U.S-based anti-poverty group InterAction, explains.

"So far, money has not changed hands yet," said Sylvain Browa. "There are a series of steps before money can be moved and you have to put a kind of institutional framework in place before money can be moved. So right now, they are working on those aspects but so far they have not received any money yet."

Mr. Browa, who just went on a research trip to Madagascar, says sums being promised are not that huge. Rather than alleviating poverty immediately, he says, the millennium challenge account might initially lay the groundwork for future projects.

"That is the point that was made to us in Madagascar," he said. "You do not move [affect] a country with $109 million. So for them, this is the first step to set the environment right, to put in place all the appropriate conditions for them to engage in much more significant investment to move the poor out of poverty. At the end of four years, if you were expecting, I do not know, a third of Malagasies' poor be moved to the next level out of poverty, you would not find that."

Another InterAction employee who just accompanied Mr. Browa in Madagascar, Jane Hise, says she hopes the challenge account will outlast the Bush administration and that there will be other phases.

"It was also made very clear in speaking with officials in Madagascar that they hope that this is the first phase of an MCA compact and that they would be able to go back and look for a second tranche of funding in a second phase of MCA funding," said Jane Hise.

Other countries still bogged down in the initial application sometimes are promised money to help them get the proposals ready. Senegal recently signed a $6.5 million agreement to work on a proposal that would develop a large-scale industrial, commercial, and residential site in its overcrowded capital Dakar.

Still other countries that do not pass all the stringent requirements to qualify, like Burkina Faso, can receive what are called threshold grants to help them become qualifying countries for the bigger grants.

Nearly $13 million in so-called threshold money has been promised to Burkina Faso for a project to improve girls' primary education completion rates.

U.S. officials preferred not to be interviewed for this report and instead passed along information available on the Internet. One of the sheets called primer to the Millennium Challenge Account says in a short span of time, the U.S. foreign assistance program has motivated two dozen countries to make reforms so they can qualify for grants. That in itself, the quote continues, should be considered a success.