Bush League: Hope, a Liter of Water,
and Where the Money Goes

Helping the president decide how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Mozambique.

Previously, in Part I of Bush League: How a young liberal became a tiny part of George W. Bush’s $15 billion anti-AIDS plan.

II. Millennium Challenge Account

The economist — I’ll call him Dr. Hasting — squinted at the figures on his laptop, leaned back in his chair, leaned forward again, punched a few keys, scratched his head, and sighed.

“I just don’t know,” he said, mostly to himself. “I don’t know where these numbers come from. The sources are so goshdarned …” He interrupted himself.

“Dennis, would you mind taking a look at this? I’d really like your input.”

I rolled my chair across the floor to Dr. Hasting’s workplace. His computer screen was taken over by a spreadsheet of cells filled with long numbers and complicated formulas. I wondered what help I could offer this man, a Ph.D. in economics from a well-known Midwestern university.

Dr. Hasting jabbed his finger at one of the cells.

“Does that look right to you?”

I looked. I saw a number: one-point-six-eight-something-something.

“What does it represent?” I asked.

“The average price of one liter of well-water from a privately-owned fount.”

I thought back to my time in the village as a Peace Corps volunteer. There, it had cost about 500 meticais to fill a 20-liter cistern from the neighbor’s pump. I did the math in my head.

“That number’s way off,” I said. “A liter comes out to about 25 meticais.”

“Did you say meticais?” Dr. Hasting frowned.

“Yeah, why?”

“These figures are in dollars.”

I laughed. One dollar was equal to about 20,000 meticais; the figure on the spreadsheet was off by roughly 7,000 percent.

Dr. Hasting sighed. He entered the new figure into the spreadsheet. He pointed at other numbers representing the cost of rice, the average salary of a domestic worker, the yield of a one-acre farm.

“I might ask for your help later with some of these,” he said.

“No problem,” I said, rolling back to the other side of the office. “I’ll be right over here.”

Dr. Hasting looked out the bank of windows, past Avenida 25 de Setembro to the Bay of Maputo, edged by gray cumulus. He muttered something beneath his breath.

Then he went back to his task, which was to calculate the value of a Mozambican life.

In March of 2002, President Bush called for a fresh approach to foreign aid. In a speech at the Inter-American Development Bank, he announced the formation of “a new compact for global development, defined by new accountability for both rich and poor nations alike.”

The key word was “accountability.” For years, critics of foreign aid had railed against what they saw as a lack of oversight and quantifiable results. Corruption, mismanagement, and competing interests perpetuated by both donors and recipients had failed to stop the spread of poverty — and in some cases, critics claimed, these factors had made things worse. Money from government agencies and NGOs had propped up repressive governments and fostered a “donor mentality” among poor beneficiaries; at the same time, development workers and brain trusts at the IMF and World Bank had gotten rich while failing to produce measurable outcomes.

Bush’s new compact, known as the Millennium Challenge Account (not to be confused with the UN Millennium Development Goals) was an attempt to deal with some of the strongest criticisms. Bush insisted that “greater contributions from developed nations must be linked to greater responsibility from developing nations.” In short, poor countries would be entitled to more aid if they proved themselves worthy.

Countries would have to come up with detailed plans to reduce poverty. If those plans were then judged feasible, the MCA would pour in massive amounts of money and expect tangible outcomes within five years.

Of course, some critics feared that Bush would use the withholding of funds as leverage against countries that didn’t support his economic philosophy or foreign policy agenda; others dismissed it as merely another wasteful bureaucratic agency. The Bush administration did its best to calm those fears and answer questions, and the Millennium Challenge Account was enacted with bipartisan support in January of 2004.

Roughly two years later, I was hired to work as a field office accountant and general consultant for a sub-contracting agency that was assessing the feasibility of Mozambique’s proposal to the Millennium Challenge Corporation — the agency responsible for overseeing the MCA.

It’s a fancy way of saying that, for the second time, I became a very small part of Bush’s plan to save the world.

As the accountant, the first things I noticed were the numbers. To me, they looked huge: Thousands of dollars to the Hotel Avenida, where consultants and expat workers lived, sometimes for weeks on end, while working on the project; reimbursements for dinners at expensive restaurants; the monthly rent and utilities for our enormous office, which often housed no more than two people at a time; car rentals, first-class plane tickets, laundry services. It was all billable to the agency and paid for with money from the Millennium Challenge Account.

I knew that in order to attract the best consultants and create a productive working environment, the agency had to offer incentives. But was it really necessary to fly first class? Instead of paying by the day for the Hotel Avenida, wouldn’t it be cheaper to rent a house for the duration of the project? I was friends with Mozambicans who would wash clothes for a month on the money these consultants paid to clean a few dress shirts. After three years in the Peace Corps, these costs seemed extravagant; they fit right into my preconceived notions about development workers who lived large while working for the impoverished.

One afternoon I mentioned this to one of my coworkers, who smiled at my naïveté.

“These are professional people — economists and businessmen who work at firms or teach at universities,” she said. “They aren’t in this for the hardship. We pay them for their experience. These are big problems we’re dealing with, and we need to recruit the best people to tackle them.”

I understood what she was saying; at the same time, I had trouble buying into her dichotomy. I didn’t see why the “best people” couldn’t approach the Millennium Challenge project with a sense of mission and humility, a desire to spend the funds on the things that mattered most to the Mozambicans the project was supposed to serve.

The more I thought about the money going to highly-paid consultants and US-based agencies, the more it begged the question: Who, after all, was this project designed to serve?

Dr. Hasting’s quest to enumerate the value of a Mozambican life took us to a disheveled room on the seventh floor of the Ministry of Health. We were attended by a cheery young woman with thick-rimmed glasses and a slight northern accent.

“How can I help you?” She asked.

“We’re looking for information about malaria,” Dr. Hasting said. “You know, prevalence, mortality, those kinds of things. Preferably at the district level.”

The woman put her finger to her lips, thought for a moment, and without saying anything led us down a row of shelves stacked with bound collections of statistics organized by year. She picked a few things off the shelf, riffled through them, and put them back.

“Now we go back to the computer,” she said.

At her terminal, she scrolled through a series of spreadsheets.

“This is what we have,” she said. “You can see that some dates are missing. But I believe these are the best data you will find here.”

Dr. Hasting frowned. The attendant went on:

“Also, this information includes the provinces and some urban areas. Some areas, even not so urban!” She laughed. “At the level of the districts, it is difficult …”

“Maybe we can extrapolate the numbers based on this information,” Dr. Hasting said. He looked at the screen for a long moment. “I guess it’s the best we can do.”

“What about PSI or some other health-related NGO?” I asked the attendant. “Do they have more information about malaria?”

“Yes, it is very possible. It would not be a bad thing to ask them.”

Outside the ministry, Dr. Hasting flipped through his notes. “This is awfully confounding,” he said. “You would think the best information would be here. Or at least that the Ministry and these NGOs would share information.”

I laughed. “I think you’ll find that for an ex-socialist country, things around here tend to be a little decentralized.”

“Yes,” Dr. Hasting said. “Well, looks like I’d better make some appointments.”

While Dr. Hasting continued to fill in the variables of his inscrutable equation, I flew north to help the business development team with translation and logistics. The MCC and its Mozambican partners had decided months earlier that the northern provinces would receive the bulk of the compact money. Isolated geographically and economically from the more developed Southern cities, these provinces were thought to be rife with untapped potential.

They also contained the highest concentration of Muslims in Mozambique — the real reason, some whispered, why the MCC had singled them out for funds (“We need to start throwing money instead of bombs at these people,” one person told me). Whatever the reason, the business development team was there to find the region’s strongest industries and make recommendations for investments.

In meeting after meeting, we heard people’s hopes and frustrations. We drove to a coconut palm plantation outside Quelimane to see how an infestation of Yellow Streak Virus was threatening to destroy a lifetime of planting and patience. We listened to a group of market-women in Lichinga tell us that what they needed more than anything were calculators and basic accounting skills. A pair of brothers that owned a palm-oil factory showed us how a simple bottle-molding machine had saved them thousands of dollars; they then complained that the government owed them 10 times more in unremunerated VAT taxes. An expatriate working at a highly successful shrimp processing plant in Pemba admitted that he was there illegally because the government refused to grant him a license to do business in Mozambique.

People wanted less regulation and more regulation, more government investment and less government investment. Some businesses advocated the building of roads that would bypass other businesses. Mozambicans grumbled that greedy foreigners were hoarding all the opportunities while foreigners lamented the local lack of business acumen and entrepreneurship. In perfect free market logic, everyone wanted what was best for himself.

In marathon talks and conference calls, the business development team debated how to move forward — lateral markets, development corridors, a hands-off approach vs. “picking winners” to get the most help. Pressure came in from Washington to find a workable resolution quickly, and tempers flared.

I watched, vacillating between hope and cynicism. On one hand, it was inspiring to witness the struggle and ingenuity of the Mozambicans we had met and to believe we could make things better. It was exciting to be a part of the late-night discussions, the struggle of ideas. It was empowering and scary to know our decisions could lead to multimillion dollar investments.

On the other hand, the task often seemed too large, even ill-conceived. The five-year timetable for showing the investments’ results seemed like a noble goal, but we outsiders were making all the judgments and decisions; it seemed at best narcissistic and at worst anti-democratic. Our late-night meetings came to resemble the gatherings of some central planning committee, hashing out five-year plans to mold an economy and affect hundreds of thousands of lives.

Toward the end of our trip, we decided to do something a little impulsive. Instead of flying from Lichinga to Pemba, we opted to rent vehicles and drive — a trip of over 300 miles that would take us through some of the most remote villages of Mozambique. The trip would give us an idea, however fleeting, about what the poorest Mozambicans were up against.

We set out from Lichinga at dawn. A few miles outside of the city, our driver suddenly slowed to a crawl and cut the headlights. He politely requested that we remain silent, and we sat in quiet darkness for 200 yards or so, until the driver reactivated the headlights and gunned the engines again.

“What was that all about?” One of the consultants asked. I put the question to the driver and translated his answer.

“He says a great Queen once lived and died on that spot, and that her spirit is still seen in the form of snakes and baboons. Passing through without paying respect can precipitate hard traveling.”

As we drove, the road became more precarious. We passed far-flung settlements where children waved or stared in stupefaction at our strange complexions. Tattoo-faced women looked up from their hoes as our wheels threw dust on their struggling crops. At one point, one of the consultants waved his arms at a scatter of thatch-roofed huts and turned to me with an affected sigh.

“I just wish I could save all of them,” he said.

After eight or 10 hours of travel, it seemed as if our luck with the Queen had run out. A couple of the consultants were ashen-faced with nausea provoked by our SUVs’ constant pitching. We had taken a wrong turn that had cost us at least an hour. Eventually we came to a dry gulch that was impassible even to our stout Land Rovers. A makeshift bridge of stripped logs had fallen into disrepair.

We piled out of the trucks and stood around with our hands on our hips. We looked at the sky, trying to estimate the hours of daylight that remained.


“Wait here,” our driver told us, and he got in one of the trucks and drove away. He returned in 10 minutes with a group of men from a nearby village. They shared some words in Chichewa and got to work on the logs, arranging them and anchoring them with mud and stones. In half an hour’s time, our vehicles were on the other side of the gulch.

As we set off toward the next village, the driver smiled at me.

“Out here in the bush, you can be thinking that you are fucked, even with a small problem.” He laughed. “But the solution is never far away.”

Back in Maputo, I caught up with Dr. Hasting. Over lunch I filled him in on the trip and we talked about where things were headed.

“We haven’t even gotten into the procurement issue yet,” Dr. Hasting said. “I mean, there’ve been meetings. But I think what we’ve learned is that we’re in a real pickle. The local Ministries are telling us they can handle just about anything, of course. But everyday you hear new stories of corruption and mismanagement. Even putting that aside, do we even know if locals stand a chance with the competitive contract bidding? You already hear people complaining that the IMF standards are biased against local agencies. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know.”

We ate in silence for awhile. I considered again how big it all seemed, how it appeared to thrive outside of any single effort to control or shape it. Did that leave room for hope? If so, what did that hope look like? Something slower and more compromised, I supposed. Something bearable. Something like a bridge of shorn logs over a dry riverbed.

“You believe in this,” I said to Dr. Hasting. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, right?”

Dr. Hasting considered this for a moment.

“I believe in trying. We have to, right? It would be wrong not to. But what we are working on here is a theory. It hasn’t been tried before, not like this.

“Look at what I’m doing, for example: Assigning a monetary value to a human life. It’s a useful way to look at the problem and quantify solutions. Economists and insurance brokers do it all the time. But it’s fundamentally incorrect. There is no way to put a figure on life.”

The doctor took a swallow of his soda.

“So you were right to ask if I believe. Because all this running around looking for statistics and this calculation won’t bridge the gap between the numbers and that unquantifiable element. Only faith will do that. The faith that all of us truly want things to be better, for everyone.”

He smiled.

“Now only if there was a formula for that.”

On July 13, 2007, Mozambique and the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a $507 million compact to reduce poverty by promoting sustainable economic growth. The compact included $203 million for water and sanitation projects, $176 million for transportation projects, $39 million for land tenure projects, and $17 million for farmers, mostly those in coconut-related industries. According to the MCC’s own projections, “As a result of Program implementation, nearly 270,000 Mozambicans will be lifted out of poverty by 2015 and 440,000 by 2025.”

Next month: No Child Left Behind

Article © 2008 by Dennis Wilson