MCC and the Arab Awakening

December 1, 2011 By Joel Paque

It is less than a month until the first U.S. presidential primaries, but the past few weeks have seen momentous elections in some of the Arab Awakening countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Two of these countries, Tunisia and Morocco, have partnered with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which seeks to spur policy and governance reforms through assistance dollars tied to eligibility criteria and country ownership. Morocco and Tunisia represent two different types of MCC programs—threshold grants and compacts. While there is still much uncertainty surrounding the future of both countries, they serve as examples of how the MCC, and U.S. assistance more broadly, can help foster policy reforms and economic development.

Morocco signed an MCC compact agreement in 2007 focusing on a number of activities aimed at increasing economic growth and opportunity. While Morocco’s MCC agreement, which went into force in 2008, focused mostly on economic development programs, MCC Compacts take into account factors such as Rule of Law, Control of Corruption, and Civil and Political Rights when conceiving and implementing programs. The openness to reform demonstrated by the signing of the MCC compact, combined with the various projects implemented under the compact have shown that the model does work. Morocco’s elections were not without some controversy; however, they do represent significant strides towards a more free and representative process, especially amidst the turbulent and difficult movements sweeping the rest of North Africa.

Tunisia, which underwent far more dramatic change in last spring’s revolts, is currently being considered for a Threshold Agreement with the MCC. Threshold Programs are smaller grants awarded to countries that come close to passing these criteria and are firmly committed to improving their policy performance. In announcing the eligibility of Tunisia for a Threshold Agreement, MCC CEO Daniel Yohannes said, “Tunisia’s ability to sustain its democratic transition is linked to the progress it makes on its economic transition. MCC is looking forward to partnering with the Tunisians on a policy reform-based program to identify and address binding constraints to economic growth.” While the new government must forge its own path forward, the incentives of future assistance will hopefully encourage the policy reforms necessary to sustain momentum towards a more free and democratic future for the people of Tunisia.

We are not even a year removed from the upheaval of the Arab Awakening, but already there have been positive signs that freer and more open governments may emerge in Morocco and Tunisia. Time will tell if the Tunisian people embrace the kinds of reforms required in the MCC Threshold Agreement for the long term, but the role assistance programs can play in encouraging reform and strengthening democratic principles it should not be underestimated at times of uncertainty.  We are facing a historic moment of opportunity in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the U.S. should continue to use all the tools of national security to support the spread of democracy, and in turn a more stable, and safer world.