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Alumni Perspective: Brad Parks '03 at the Forefront of Foreign Assistance Projects

ParksAs a Development Policy Officer at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Brad Parks is helping to allocate billions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance. He administers MCC's annual selection process determining which countries receive development grants.

A new federal agency, MCC is the result of a presidential initiative that led to its establishment in 2004. The agency grants additional foreign assistance on top of other U.S. agencies – but using a radically new approach.

According to Brad, "The Administration promised to provide more assistance if developing countries would take steps to meet objective performance criteria in three areas: ruling justly, investing in people's health and education, and economic freedom."

MCC relies on 16 third-party indicators and keeps "scorecards" for all low-income and lower-middle-income countries on its website, rating them red or green on each indicator. Countries that pass half of the indicators in each category, meet criteria rating their control of corruption, are eligible to put forth proposals to MCC.

The selection process is competitive and highly selective. "MCC provides a huge incentive for these countries to adopt the necessary reforms, because, if selected, they're able to tap into a very large and flexible source of grant funding. The added advantage is that these reforms could potentially have a very big impact on economic growth and poverty reduction, regardless of whether these countries become MCC-eligible," Brad said.

MCC's approach is also unique in that eligible countries get to set their own priorities and propose projects in sectors that are important to them. "We encourage them to pick one or two, or maybe three, issues to address in a transformational way, rather than just tinkering at the margins." Brad said. "With this new approach, we're scaling up U.S. assistance to levels that many countries previously could only dream of. It's a big deal."

A separate Threshold Program is geared toward countries that are close to qualifying, missing just one or two of the benchmark indicators. Brad advises Threshold governments on how they can most effectively use these smaller-sized grants ($3-25 million) to accelerate ongoing reform efforts and move their indicators from red to green. "For a lot of Threshold countries, the issue is corruption. We work with their governments to set up internal watchdog units, strengthen the capacity of their investigators and prosecutors, pass tough anti-corruption laws, and recover stolen funds. We're also training investigative journalists and mobilizing civil society groups."

Brad's interest in foreign assistance began as an International Relations major at William and Mary. "I worked and studied for a year in the Venezuelan Andes and Ecuadorian Amazon, which sparked my interest in the relationship between environmental degradation and poverty. When I returned to campus, I got much more serious about my academic work," he said. "That's when I began working with Professor Roberts on global climate change. That's also what led to my senior thesis on foreign environmental assistance."

"My senior year, I put in a lot of hours at the library and spent a lot of time collaborating on these research projects with my professors, but I managed to maintain a reasonable balance between life and school," Brad said. "I lived in one of the Lodges with six friends, and we're all still very close. I also met my wife that year."

With the benefit of hindsight, Brad has some advice for students considering an International Relations major. "The major is a bit daunting at first, because it encompasses so much. You'll get a little taste of everything in your coursework; but to really find a niche, I think you need to find an interesting research project or Study Abroad program. These can be great entry points into something more specialized."

"When I describe my undergraduate experience to colleagues who went to other top-notch schools, I usually see this look of shock come across their faces. Many of them didn't have anywhere near the same kind of collaboration with faculty members that I did. The professors at William and Mary reach out and support students – not just in professional and academic ways but also on a personal level. They're interested in what's going with you. And if you're willing to work hard, many of them are willing to make a long-term investment in you." As an undergraduate student, Brad supervised a team of nine research assistants in the creation of the PLAID (project-level aid) database. He was also co-principal investigator of an Andrew Mellon Foundation grant to the College, which resulted in multiple peer-refereed journal articles and a co-authored book with Professor Roberts, A Climate of Injustice (MIT Press, 2006). He and Professor Tierney (Government), Professor Hicks (Economics), and Professor Roberts (Sociology) are also finishing a book this year entitled Greening Aid: Understanding Environmental Assistance to Developing Countries (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

He graduated cum laude in 2003 with a major in International Relations (highest honors) and a minor in Economics. In 2004, he obtained an M.Sc. degree in Development Management from the London School of Economics, where he graduated with "distinction." At LSE, he continued to study the determinants of foreign aid allocation.

From June to December 2004, Brad returned to William and Mary as a Visiting Scholar in the Government Department. While in residence, he helped draft a book manuscript on environmental aid allocation and secure a $253,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support the PLAID project.

"For years I studied the determinants of aid allocation. Now that's my job at MCC – the allocation of billions of dollars each year. I jumped at the chance to be a part of the actual decision-making process," Brad said.