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Fighting Global Poverty With Business Strategies

Sep 24, 2012
Originally published on September 25, 2012 1:57 pm



I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, many parents encourage - some say pressure - their kids to become high achievers, but what if a child just says no? David Yoo discusses his memoir, "The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever." That's just ahead.

First, though, the global financial crisis has dominated economic headlines in recent years, but while the eurozone continues to struggle, some of the nations with the strongest economic growth are in Africa. According to the International Monetary Fund, regional output is still set to increase this year from its 2011 average of five percent.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation is paying close attention to that shift. It's a U.S.-born assistance agency that helps to fight poverty by forming partnerships with countries that prove a commitment to good governance and the majority of its work is in Africa.

Michel Martin sat down with Daniel Yohannes, the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, to talk about his organization and the work it's doing.


Thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL YOHANNES: Great to be here.

MARTIN: For those who don't know much about what your group does, will you explain it?

YOHANNES: The Millennium Challenge Corporation was created in 2004 during the Bush Administration, supported by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and we have a very specific mission. That is to reduce poverty through long term economic growth.

Our model is very different than most development agencies in the world. We are about selectivity. We select countries that are committed to good democratic and economic governance and we put a lot of emphasis on country ownership. Our partners are responsible from the beginning to the end. We help them to help themselves.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, but give us an example of where the money actually goes.

YOHANNES: Approximately about 70 percent of our investments go to infrastructure, farmer training, water and sanitation projects and energy projects. Before we fund, we make sure that all of the projects have a very good economic rate of return.

MARTIN: I think it's important to point out, 70 percent of the Millennium Challenge Corporation's funding goes to Africa, and according to the International Monetary Fund, sub-Saharan Africa's growth rate has been about five percent since 2010. I think that that might be surprising to some people who are used to seeing Africa, in general, as an economic basket case. I mean, are there other stories that you think people need to be more aware of?

YOHANNES: Well, we've seen a dramatic increase in Africa in the last decade. In fact, six of the 10 fastest growing economies were all in sub-Saharan Africa. And I believe, even though you still have half of the population in the continent live less than two dollars a day, but Africa is really poised, in the next 10, 15 years, to see a major economic growth.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? You know, what are the factors that are leading to that? I mean, you know, obviously, there are still a lot of challenges, but what do you think are the factors that have led to the beginning of what many people are going to say is going to be Africa's decade?

YOHANNES: Africa is investing in its own infrastructure. Africa is building roads, bridges, airports and expanding ports. Africa is spending significant money educating its own citizens. Africa is making significant changes in terms of policies, creating the conditions for private sector to flourish and Africa is doing extremely well in terms of attracting foreign investment from different countries. You have more countries today than ever before that are committed to, you know, democratic principles.

So I think it primarily is just creating the conditions where businesses feel comfortable to invest in Africa.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm joined by the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Daniel Yohannes. We're talking more about the agency's work.

So I think, at this point, a lot of listeners might be asking themselves, well, what's in it for me? What's the U.S. interest in this?

YOHANNES: Well, development is about our security. It is about our prosperity. Let's take, for example, South Korea, a country that has been the recipient of U.S. aid through the 1970s. Today, South Korea exports about $57 billion of goods and product to the U.S. and we export approximately about $47 billion in goods and services.

What that means is, at the end of the day, in addition to helping many African partners become self-sufficient, we create the conditions where aid is no longer needed. We're also creating the next markets for American product and services.

Based on what we've seen with South Korea, that means, in about 10, 15, 20 years, there's no reason why we should not be exporting half a trillion worth of goods and services to our African partners.

MARTIN: Can we talk about you for a minute?


MARTIN: That you immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia when you were 17 years old. It's been said that you had $150 in your pocket. Is that true?

YOHANNES: That's true.

MARTIN: And then you went on to become a successful entrepreneur yourself. Can you just talk about - what do you think the key to your success, your personal success, was?

YOHANNES: Number one, I believe there are more opportunities here than any other place in the world and I worked hard. I think the real answer is you work hard and make sure that you are achieving your objectives and learn as much as you can and that's what I did and spent 30 years in the private sector.

MARTIN: But, you know, in a way, though, it's - forgive me if this is a painful question, but people could look at your story in different ways. They could look at your story as a sign of kind of the continuing power of the American story, but also of the continuing brain drain that so many other countries around the world are experiencing. And why would a young person in Ethiopia look at you and say, I should do what he did, which is I should leave?

YOHANNES: Michel, that's a very good question. I think what we're trying to do right now is creating conditions where they could stay in their countries and prosper. If you see many of the immigrants, why they came to this country is because they're looking for better opportunities. But, if you create those opportunities in those countries by working with them, by finding the best solutions, then you will stop the flow of immigration everywhere, here or other places.

MARTIN: You know, unfortunately, many of the stories that we still cover from the continent do have to do with misgovernance, with corruption, with brutality. I mean, if you and I were to speak five years from now, what conversation about Africa would we have?

YOHANNES: There'll be more African countries that would abide by many of the good democratic and, you know, economic principles. In fact, when MCC was created in 2004, there were a lot of people who doubted whether we'll have any African partners because they didn't think a lot of our African partners would qualify for our program.

Today, the majority of our partners are from the continent of Africa. So my belief and my prediction would be that we'll see more African countries that are free in terms of, you know, how they run their countries. We'll see very few dictators. Hopefully, we'll see few corrupt leaders. And we are going to see an Africa that's prospering and making a significant contribution to the entire universe.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I have to say that all of the Millennium Challenge Corporation's work is not done in Africa. What are some of the other places where the corporation is working that might actually be surprising to Americans?

YOHANNES: We work in Moldova, a former Soviet republic, Armenia, Georgia, Indonesia, Philippines, Honduras, El Salvador, so we are everywhere, in Morocco and Jordan, as well.

MARTIN: And, finally, again, it's terrible to ask you to do this, but I am going to ask to do this. Is there a favorite project that you've seen come to fruition under your watch? I know it's like picking among your children, but I do want to ask.

YOHANNES: We've had nine countries that have completed their five year program in the last two years, so I don't have any particular favorite, but they all did extremely well.

MARTIN: Daniel Yohannes is the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Yohannes, thank you so much for speaking with us.

YOHANNES: Thank you, Michel. Appreciate it. Glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.