Are the best aid agencies the ones about to die?

Recently the acting CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Rodney Bent, invited a group of development bloggers for a congenial chat over breakfast pastries about their new monitoring and evaluation website and “results” portal. This is in contrast, mind you, with another aid organization which shall remain nameless but which has the initials U and N, which told us a couple weeks ago that they “didn’t have a communication policy for blogs” and weren’t sure whether they could give us the document we were requesting (to their credit, they eventually did.) To say nothing of another agency that emailed us: “Hello. I have received your emails and phone call. However, WHO does not participate in blog discussions. Thank you.” And let's not even mention the other US aid agency, USAID, who responds to requests for information by demanding that we talk only to the USAID press rep whose full-time job is not responding to requests for information.

So the bar here is low. And the MCC isn’t perfect. But hey, it’s nice to be given a cup of coffee every once in a while and treated like you exist.

The personable Bent started the meeting with a little story: he recently visited a university classroom and completely disarmed the students—who were eager to rip apart any self-serving propaganda he served up—by being the first to enumerate the MCC’s own failings and weaknesses. The original MCC design team was too tactless about implying that USAID had been a failure, he said, “too optimistic,” too “eager to sign things.” Not to mention the problems MCC has run into in Armenia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Madagascar…to name a few.

This little anecdote seems to represent the MCC’s current savvy outreach strategy: be honest about your failings before others can beat you to it! Hence, the chat and the coffee.

The MCC says many of the right things. Publishing economic rates of return for their projects, providing M&E data for each MCC country in two formats, adding in data visualization and more collaborative feedback tools (all currently available or in the works over the next few months) is MUCH more than many other aid agencies are willing or able to do at the moment.

You can visit the new site here, and use the feedback form to get in touch with Shiro Gnanaselvam, the MCC’s senior director for monitoring and evaluation.

Still the most interesting question to me is, why is the MCC so proactively courting bloggers when other aid agencies tell us to drop dead?

Maybe it is because the MCC—a Bush administration initiative that has never been fully funded—has been predicted to face extinction if it can’t get broad support from the public and from some key power brokers in the new administration.

Could this be a tiny piece of evidence in favor of the theory that effective accountability sometimes requires a threat to your very existence (as with private firms or with the political careers of elected officials)?

The organization with the least vested interests supporting it may be the one that will perform the best. At least, they actually invite their critics to breakfast.