In April, the president of the poverty-stricken nation of Senegal unveiled what he boasts is the world's "highest statue" — a $24 million bronze artwork called "African Renaissance" that measures slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Next month, a U.S. government aid agency is scheduled to begin delivery of $540 million in taxpayer money under a program that rewards developing countries with emerging democracies and a track record of good governance.
Critics, including some members of Congress, say the aid should be reconsidered.
"Senegal's 'good governance' cash was a mistake," said Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who for eight years served as chairman of the Africa and global health subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The aid, meant to help reduce global poverty by stimulating economic growth, is being delivered through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), a Bush administration initiative set up in 2004 after receiving bipartisan support in Congress. The Obama administration has sought increased funding for the MCC.
The MCC is scheduled to formally put its compact with Senegal into effect next month, committing the $540 million over five years to help farmers increase their productivity by improving the irrigation system and rehabilitating roads to help get products to market.
The agency has signed multiyear "compacts," or agreements, with 20 countries to provide $7.2 billion in U.S. aid to reduce poverty through similar projects. The countries are selected based on 17 outside performance indicators. The most important is control of corruption.
Like several other countries, Senegal passed the initial corruption indicators only to have reports of corruption continue to surface.
Many critics have singled out the statue, a depiction of three figures: a man holding a child aloft and a woman behind them. The statue is located on a hill in the capital, Dakar — on the westernmost tip of the African continent — and is meant to mark Senegal's 50 years of independence from France.
Containing conference rooms and a terrace, the monument also has an elevator that takes visitors to an observation deck atop the man's head.
Despite President Abdoulaye Wade's claims, the statue is not the tallest in the world. China's Spring Temple Buddha, which stands almost 420 feet, is generally agreed to be the tallest statue in the world. The height of African Renaissance is said to be 164 feet. The Statue of Liberty stands at 151 feet.
African Renaissance was built by a North Korean firm, which received its payment from Mr. Wade in the form of a prime piece of state-owned land, which it reportedly resold for a profit.
A third of admission and concession fees from the attraction are to be diverted to a charitable foundation devoted to early childhood education created and controlled by Mr. Wade, who has said his personal foundation is entitled to the fees generated by the state-financed monument because he was the one who conceived it.
Price estimates for the monument vary from the $24 million Mr. Wade said to as high as $70 million.
Mr. Royce called the expenditure "infuriating."
"Our aid frees up funds for Wade to hire a North Korean state-run company," he said.
J. Peter Pham, a senior vice president and director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, questioned the commitment to good governance of a country that "needs our assistance to get out of poverty but has the money to spend on a statute the majority of its citizens don't want."
"At the very least, it demonstrates the country's leadership has its most basic priorities wrong," he said. "The statue alone would be grounds to stop the aid. If you have $70 million to waste on a statute that most of the population opposes, then why should you even receive $10 million, much less $540 million?"
But the statue isn't the only reason critics say U.S. taxpayer dollars should be withheld.
In September 2009, Mr. Wade gave a $200,000 farewell gift to the departing representative of the International Monetary Fund, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the poverty-stricken West African country.
The IMF employee, Alex Segura, did not open the farewell gift until after leaving a dinner with the president. He turned over the money to the IMF, which returned it to Senegal, according to an IMF statement on its investigation of the incident.
"The President explained that the money was intended as a traditional farewell gift to Mr. Segura in recognition of his contribution to Senegal, and was not in any way intended to influence either Mr. Segura, who was leaving the country permanently, or the IMF. He acknowledged that the amount that was provided was a mistake," the IMF said in a statement.
Earlier last year, the 84-year-old president created a super-Cabinet ministry post for his son Karim, putting him in charge of all infrastructure, international cooperation, regional development and air transport projects. Some observers think Mr. Wade is positioning his son, a controversial figure in Senegal, to succeed him.
Mr. Pham pointed out that in previous government posts, the younger Mr. Wade was "was criticized for cost overruns and accused of corruption."
In September 2009, Mr. Royce wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who heads the MCC board — urging her to "strongly convey" to the government of Senegal before signing the compact that "it must take firm steps to address its recent rule of law and corruption backsliding."
He wrote that it was "troubling" that Mr. Wade had appointed his son to a position that was "likely to play a significant role in directing U.S. tax dollars provided to Senegal through the compact."
A top assistant to Mrs. Clinton wrote back to Mr. Royce in October saying that the secretary of state shared his concerns over "signs of slippage in governancein Senegal"and that these issues had been raised with officials at the highest levels in Senegalese government.
Nevertheless, the compact was signed in September.
Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the MCC board has to figure out what to do with a country like Senegal, which earned passing scores on the corruption indicators but "is becoming an embarrassing example of the worst kinds of misuse of funds and abuse of authority."
"Senegal is a country coming off the rails," said Mr. Moss, who was a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department Bureau of African Affairs during the Bush administration. "Democracy is under serious threat in Senegal."
Senegal Ambassador Fatou Danielle Diagne said the country had implemented a number of good-governance reforms and she disagreed with critics who said the aid should be reconsidered because of corruption issues.
"We should get it because we are not corrupted," she said.
The ambassador said that the MCC money won't go to the government and "won't go to Karim, the president or me." She said the MCC had established a framework under which all disbursements would have to go through a team, which includes Americans.
"There is nothing to be afraid of," she said, adding that the country is "grateful" for the MCC grants, which "will ameliorate the economic and social condition of our population."
MCC funding was the subject of an April congressional hearing, in which members of a House appropriations subcommittee from both sides of the aisle expressed concerns.
The MCC was supposed to be a "new, different model," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and chairman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
"But corruption is business as usual," she said.
Members asked the head of the MCC whether his agency had taken any action to delay or stop funding in countries such as Senegal, which had been the subject of numerous corruption stories.
Daniel W. Yohannes, the agency's chief executive officer, told the subcommittee that the MCC has never taken such a step in response to corruption reports in its six years of operation. He said the MCC takes corruption seriously, monitors the situations daily and could terminate if necessary.
The MCC has terminated or partially terminated compacts in cases of a coup or an undemocratic change of government or serious questions about elections, including in Madagascar, Honduras, Armenia and Nicaragua.
Mr. Yohannes said that since MCC disburses funds directly to vendors instead of placing money in the hands of government officials, "we've not lost a dime for corruption or corrupt practices."
In May, the U.S. ambassador to Senegal, Marcia S. Bernicat, raised concerns about corruption in an opinion piece titled "Senegal & Corruption." She wrote that "To qualify for and more importantly, maintain MCC funds, countries must demonstrate positive policy performance and fight corruption."
She said the top officials of the State Department and the MCC recently talked with Senegalese government officials about development goals and the "importance of fighting corruption."
"The American people insist that their development dollars need to meaningfully improve the lives of the people of the Senegal," she wrote.
Mr. Wade responded by berating her on national television, saying the U.S. is "accusing Senegal of corruption."
"This is something I cannot accept," he was quoted in local news reports as saying. "If you want, take the Millennium Challenge account and go to a country where they will accept these criticisms and insults."
Sheila Herrling, MCC vice president of the Department of Policy and Evaluation, said the MCC has a unit that monitors the compact countries to track their performance on control of corruption and other governance indicators.
She said last week that the agency is on schedule to start funding the Senegal grants in September because Senegal has not exhibited a pattern of actions that would justify a termination, in terms of the government trying to undermine Senegalese accountability institutions, such as the courts and the media.
She said individual cases of opportunistic corruption would not trigger a suspension or revocation.
Mr. Pham said the aid should be delayed at least "until we get answers to some serious questions. There is no right to receive American tax dollars."
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