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Archive for the ‘MCC’ Category

ForeignAssistance.gov Is Getting Bigger; Here’s How to Make It Better

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sarah Rose, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. The piece originally appeared on CGD’s blog on June 23rd.

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We’re getting closer to knowing how the USG spends its foreign assistance dollars.  Recently, the State Department announced its first release of foreign assistance data on the ForeignAssistance.gov website (also known as “The Dashboard”).  This may not sound terribly glamorous, but it’s actually important news.  Since State’s spending makes up over a third of all US foreign assistance spending, the absence of its data has been a huge gap. With this recent State Department move, spending data for agencies responsible for 96 percent of US foreign assistance are now online. It’s great to see the Dashboard—now in its fourth year—slowly coming together. As it does, here are a few thoughts on why it’s still a good investment, the big challenges it faces, and how it can be improved.

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

If well implemented, the Dashboard, an online resource of US foreign assistance spending (and potentially other) data, can:

  • Increase accountability and transparency: One of the Dashboard’s main goals is to enable easier access to information about US foreign assistance investments by US citizens, Congress, other US agencies, along with citizens and governments in recipient countries.
  • Ease agencies’ reporting burden (eventually): Behind the Dashboard lies a massive database that will eventually contain all of the underlying information necessary not just to populate the online interface but also to fulfill USG’s other regular reporting, like IATI, the Greenbook, and the OECD-DAC’s Creditor Reporting System.  Once the Dashboard/IATI process is automated within the agencies, complying with all this reporting should become much more streamlined and, importantly, more institutionalized.
  • Create incentives for improved data quality: Publishing data can change the dynamic around data quality.  The prospect of increased scrutiny can create an incentive for agencies to reinforce internal systems to produce cleaner, better organized data which can, in turn, bolster an agency’s own understanding of its internal operations.

Why It’s Taking So Long

The Dashboard was announced in 2010.  The effort is led by State’s F Bureau, which coordinates with the (over 20!) USG agencies that deliver some form of foreign assistance, and collects, codes, and publishes their data submissions. Some agencies, however, are far more capable of reporting to the Dashboard than others.  What’s so hard about data reporting, you may ask?  Quite a few things, it turns out, including:

  • Existing information systems’ incompatibility with Dashboard requirements.  Different agencies have different financial and project management information systems.  In fact, individual agencies often have multiple, separate systems.  Most of them long predate any notion of “open data” and are simply not designed to compile information in the way the Dashboard needs it.  Changing IT systems is a massive, costly undertaking.
  • Foreign assistance funds must be parsed out from a broader portfolio.  For agencies whose core mission isn’t foreign aid, internal systems weren’t set up to differentiate between foreign assistance and domestic spending. This makes it difficult to identify what’s right for the Dashboard and what’s not.  MCC has it easy in this respect (foreign aid only); the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, does not (mostly domestic).

At this point, the Dashboard team over at State is focused principally on providing data (i.e., getting more agencies on board) as well as pushing for improved data quality.  The team is pursuing a phased approach to populating the web portal, publishing agencies’ data as they have it ready.  It’s a courageous move for the USG to publicly release information knowing that it’s incomplete (and highly imperfect). Yet, they recognize that an incremental approach maintains pressure for continued implementation and fosters competition among agencies.  It may also help ease the culture shift towards transparency by gradually demonstrating that openness doesn’t have to be threatening.

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

  • A user can’t easily tell if data are complete—and often they’re not.  By illustration, this graphicshows agency-by-agency reporting to the Dashboard. You’ll see that not a single year contains information from all agencies (2006 to current), and that most agencies have reporting gaps.  It’s great that the Dashboard is frank about this, but the problem is that this is not clearly indicated where it needs to be.  For instance, if you wanted to find out about aid to Tanzania from 2008 to 2012, you would probably go directly to the Tanzania page and assume that what you pulled for “all agencies” means just that.  You’d be wrong. Only MCC and Treasury have 2008 data on the Dashboard, so “all agencies” means just those two for that year.  More broadly, it’s hard for a user to tell easily if data that don’t show up are absent because they don’t exist (e.g. DOD didn’t spend foreign assistance money in Country X in a given year) or because it’s missing (e.g. DOD did spend foreign assistance money in Country X that year but hasn’t reported it). The Dashboard does include caveats about data limitations but they’re unintuitively scattered in way too many locations that aren’t near where users are looking at data.  So they’re only helpful if a user thinks they should have a question about data quality or comprehensiveness and actively seeks this information.
  • Transaction-level data are incomplete (and sometimes unintelligible). Some important fields are missing from most agencies’ submissions.  For example, State is uniformly missing project title and description making it nearly impossible for a user to tell what he or she is looking at.  MCC has titles, but not descriptions.  USAID has descriptions for most of its transactions, but many of these merely replicate the title, are unintuitive to outsiders, refer to supporting documents that are unavailable, and/or cut off mid-description.  Start and end dates are also complicated.  For USDA they’re missing.  USAID provides only the year; MCC provides only the start date. State’s date reporting is spotty and contains apparently inconsistent information, like disbursements that happen before start dates.

Getting the data out there is important, and it’s the right thing to do.  But doing so while simultaneously improving coverage and quality gives me two related (though opposite) concerns.  I’m worried that:

1)      People Will Use the Data and draw incorrect conclusions due to missing or poor quality data; and/or

2)      People Won’t Use the Data because they are aware of its current limitations and will write off the Dashboard as an unreliable source, regardless of whether data coverage and quality improve later.  In a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, lack of use could in turn slow Dashboard progress, since, to some extent, agencies need to know people will use the data before they invest scarce resources to provide it and improve its quality.

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

State’s Dashboard team and the 20+ agencies with foreign assistance spending are working hard to make the Dashboard a useful, relevant tool.  It’s a big undertaking.  Here are four things I hope they are considering:

1)      Help users better understand the data: The main risks to the Dashboard come from incomplete and thus unreliable data.  Breadth and reliability are key requirements for data to be truly useful. Therefore, the Dashboard should be abundantly clear when users are looking at complete versus partial information, or preliminary versus final data. Users should not have to dig through multiple, separate “additional information” pages to find this out.

2)      Improve transaction data:  Agencies should strive to fill the gaps in their transaction data (especially critical things like titles that facilitate rolling up transactions to the project level), as well as improve the comprehensibility of the information (for example, make descriptions descriptive).

3)      Don’t forget about usability: The current priority of the Dashboard is to publish as much data as possible in manipulable format and let users work with it as they wish.  However, a single user interface is never going to be able to meet the needs of all stakeholders, so the USG should reinforce its efforts to: (i) define who their priority audiences are; and (ii) understand how these different groups want to use the data and tailor the interface accordingly.  The Dashboard team is already taking steps in this direction with outreach to country missions and US-based stakeholders.

4)      Publish agency specific implementation schedules: The Dashboard website does explain where each agency is in the implementation process. But, it should also include agency-by-agency schedules for reporting compliance (and not just with Dashboard requirements, butwith IATI requirements, too).  This would not only provide an accountability structure that would help motivate continued momentum, it would also serve as an important signal of commitment.

The Way Forward: Bringing Accountability and Ownership into Focus

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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This past April, MFAN launched a new policy paper laying out a refreshed vision for The Way Forward on aid reform focused on two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars: accountability and country ownership. Last week, we convened the community for a public event to reflect on why these pillars of accountability and country ownership are central to our agenda and how they are being put into practice.

The event began with a reflection on the accomplishments that have been made to date on improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice from MFAN Honorary Co-Chair and Former Congressman Jim Kolbe. Kolbe also took the opportunity to stress the importance of codifying the many important reforms that have been made so that progress is not lost with the ushering in of a new Administration.

To highlight the pillar of accountability, we were joined by Samantha Custer and Dina Abdel-Fattah of AidData and Sally Paxton of Publish What You Fund for insightful presentations. AidData highlighted their geocoding work in Nepal to demonstrate how better data can lead to a broader dialogue and smarter decisionmaking, helping to illustrate the fact that accountability and ownership are mutually reinforcing. They also discussed the importance of mapping the universe of foreign aid in order to have greater impact. AidData also stressed the importance of building the capacity of people to actually use the data and how that will help drive the demand for more and better data. Meanwhile, Paxton took the opportunity to offer five key recommendations for better U.S. aid transparency: publishing high-quality data and using it often; sharing our data with the world; promoting the use of the International Aid Transparency Initiative; publish quality, timely, and comprehensive data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard; and accelerating progress to meet (our already made!) commitments to transparency. You can read about these recommendations in more depth here.

photoFollowing these presentations, MFAN Co-Chair George Ingram moderated a panel discussion featuring Sheila Herrling of the MCC, Tony Pipa of USAID, Asif Shaikh of CSIS, and Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive Worldwide. The panel discussed the importance of – and also the challenges that come with – country ownership. Herrling noted that there is a struggle between managing speed and efficiency with ownership and accountability. Shaikh made the point that ownership needs to be about all actors coming together to shape a vision for self-sustaining development, and Sharma used an example from Sri Lanka to highlight how sustainable development happens when it is demand driven.

Over the next two years we will be periodically taking stock of progress made and where things are lagging in the areas of ownership and accountability. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the community, the Administration, and Capitol Hill on the importance of these pillar issues to improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice.

MFAN Event: Accountability & Ownership: The Way Forward for U.S. Foreign Assistance

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014
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Please join the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) for a discussion on how the Administration
and Congress can advance the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance through
targeted action in the areas of Accountability and Country Ownership.

Thursday, May 29, 2014, 10:00 – 11:30 am
The Polaris Room of the Ronald Reagan Building
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004

Opening Remarks by

The Honorable Jim Kolbe
Former U.S. Congressman and Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund

Followed by presentations from

AidData
Samantha Custer, Director of Communications and Policy Outreach
Dina Abdel-Fattah, Project Manager
who will share a simulation of their innovative work geocoding development programs across
the globe

And

Publish What You Fund
Sally Paxton, U.S. Representative
who will explore how best to publish aid information to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and
IATI Registry as the U.S. works to fulfill its commitments to transparency and open data

Concluding with a panel discussion featuring

Sheila Herrling, Vice President for Policy and Evaluation, Millennium Challenge Corporation
Tony Pipa, Deputy Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning and Learning, U.S. Agency for International Development
Asif Shaikh, Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Ritu Sharma, Co-Founder & President, Women Thrive Worldwide

Moderated by
George Ingram, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

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Please RSVP to Jill MacArthur, jmacarthur@modernizeaid.net or 202-776-1586.

Local Voices and Resources Are the Ultimate Answer in the Fight Against Poverty

Friday, April 18th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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This week, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) released a policy paper – The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond – urging the U.S. Government to work more closely than ever before with our partner countries and their citizens to improve the way in which our aid dollars are planned and spent. The paper highlights MFAN’s new agenda and makes clear why country ownership and accountability are powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars that will make U.S. aid more effective in helping leaders and citizens in developing countries drive decisions about their own development.

U.S. foreign aid to developing countries is vital in the effort to save lives, fight famine, put kids in schools, and respond to disasters. But, our help will be even more impactful and lasting if designed and implemented in true partnership with developing country governments and citizens, in ways that strengthen their own efforts, and that they can build on. A frank conversation between our government and the people we want to help is necessary to address the inefficiencies in our aid system that often delivers aid piecemeal and is not integrated with local efforts.

Save the Children is a leading voice in MFAN, driven by the belief that U.S. foreign assistance needs to focus on fostering local partnerships and creating relationships of mutual accountability. In countries where we operate, Save the Children works in partnership with national and local governments and communities on programs that we know are working for children and that are helping to bring about more of their government’s investment in the long run. In Nepal, we have joined forces with district governments, each providing half of the funding needed to create a Child Endowment Fund that allows caregivers of vulnerable children to receive consistent support.

In addition, we have just launched a pilot program in multiple countries to identify and support local advocates for children in their efforts to secure a fairer share of public resources from their governments for the care, protection and development of their children. Foreign aid is certainly helping achieve these outcomes, but the foundation for continued care for these children lies in our partner countries’ own commitments to the cause. This commitment can be demonstrated in effective, child-focused policies and programs, and growing shares of public funding for childhood care and development.

The U.S. Government is already committed to engaging citizens and governments in developing countries to inform the planning and delivery of our aid programs. It is in America’s own interest to ensure that our aid dollars are integrated with the efforts of these governments and local citizens, and that we’re helping to prepare them for a day when foreign aid is no longer needed. MFAN and its members, including Save the Children, want to see this commitment translated into greater action, and stand ready to help the Obama Administration put local institutions in the driver’s seat and equip them to bring about a permanent end to extreme poverty for children and families across the world.

5 things the US government is doing to make foreign assistance more effective

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Jennifer Lentfer, Senior Writer on the Aid Effectiveness Team at Oxfam America. Lentfer highlights the aid effectiveness principles from Oxfam’s newly released third-edition Foreign Aid 101 report.

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#1 – AFFIRMING AID’S PURPOSE

President Barack Obama issued the US government’s first ever US Global Development Policy in September 2010. The policy clarifies that the primary purpose of US development aid is to pursue broad-based economic growth as the means to fight global poverty.

The US Global Development Policy also offers a clear mandate for country ownership—that is, leadership by citizens and responsible governments in poor countries—is how the US government will support development. The US has been moving in this direction since the George W. Bush administration.

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#2 – MODERNIZING USAID

USAID Forward is a flagship reform agenda designed to make USAID more transparent, effective, and accountable to US taxpayers and to people overseas.

The issue: USAID Forward addresses outdated procurement policies that perpetuate a cycle of aid dependence, rebuilding staff technical capacity, the reduction of overhead costs associated with contracting by 12–15 percent, the need for rigorous program feedback and evaluation, and finally, the role of innovation, science, and technology throughout USAID’s programs. At the heart of this reform process is acknowledging the leading role that local people and institutions have in transforming their countries.

The results: Since USAID Forward began, USAID has increased the amount of direct support to governments and to citizens and other leaders and problems solvers in host countries by almost 50 percent. In fiscal year 2010, only 9.7 percent of USAID mission funding was awarded directly to host country government agencies, private-sector firms, and local NGOs. In 2013, 14.3 percent of mission funds were awarded directly to these local institutions, which is halfway toward USAID’s goal of 30 percent by fiscal year 2015.

#3 – MAKING US FOREIGN AID MORE TRANSPARENT

The issue: Basic information about where, how much, and for what the US government provides aid has historically been difficult for people to access—both for American taxpayers and for the people in poor countries we are trying to assist. But when the US government shares high-quality, comprehensive, and timely information about our aid investments, it helps:

  • Partners plan better projects;
  • Watchdogs keep an eye on the money; and
  • Citizens both in the US and in partner countries make sure that aid delivers results.

The results: The US government is beginning to disclose basic aid data, as well as make that data more useful to citizens. In 2010, the US unveiled a public website, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which provides a view of US aid across agencies and countries. President Obama has mandated publishing machine-readable data on US aid via executive orders and through public, international commitments like the Open Government Partnership. There have also been bipartisan efforts in both houses of Congress to require more transparency from US aid agencies via legislation.

In 2011, the US joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a global agreement by donors to share information about foreign aid in an easy-to-use manner. Since joining IATI, US rankings in the Aid Transparency Index have risen across the board, with the MCC ranking number one in 2013.

ForeignAID-shareGraphics-Martha

#4 – DEVELOPING NEW MODELS OF PROVIDING AID

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a United States foreign aid agency that is applying a new philosophy towards foreign aid. Introduced by President George W. Bush and established by Congress in 2004, the MCC model requires countries to meet eligibility criteria in three areas: good governance, economic freedom, and investments in people. In return, the MCC provides large, five-year grants (“compacts”) toward development projects that are identified along with representatives from the host country government, private sector, and civil society and that are assessed on the basis of expected economic returns and other technical criteria.

From 2004-2013, the MCC signed compacts with 24 countries and committed over $9.3 billion in aid. Lesotho is an example of a country that took steps to improve economic freedom to become eligible for an MCC partnership by passing a law in 2006 that allowed married women to own property for the first time.

#5 – TACKLING GLOBAL CHALLENGES THROUGH LOCAL INSTITUTIONS

FEED THE FUTURE

The issue: About three-fourths of the world’s poorest people—1.4 billion women, children, and men—live in rural areas, where most of them depend on farming and related activities for their livelihood.

In recent years, increasing food prices around the globe have put pressure on many poor households. In response to these recurring food crises, the Obama administration in 2010 launched the Feed the Future initiative, which aims to help small farmers grow more food and grow their incomes. Feed the Future is designed to deliver aid for agricultural development and food security based on a country’s own assessment of needs and priorities. Feed the Future is also intended to focus on results and leverage US investments in local research and training on farming methods, irrigation, and nutrition for maximum outcomes.

The results: In 2012, almost 9.4 million acres—a land area nearly double that of New Jersey—came under improved cultivation and management practices due to Feed the Future investments, supporting seven million food producers. In Senegal for example, the use of conservation farming techniques resulted in at least a 20 percent increase in yields of maize, millet, and sorghum from 2011 to 2012.

ForeignAID-shareGraphics-Manuel

THE US PRESIDENT’S EMERGENCY PLAN FOR AIDS RELIEF (PEPFAR)

The issue: An estimated 35 million people were living with HIV around the world in 2012. The persistent burden associated with communicable diseases undermines efforts to reduce poverty, prevent hunger, and preserve human potential. Launched in 2003, PEPFAR helps expand access to prevention, care, and treatment by funding programs that are country-owned and country-driven, emphasizing a “whole of government” response to scaling-up proven interventions, which are increasingly financed by partner countries.

The results: PEPFAR has helped contributed to historic declines in AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections. Going forward, PEPFAR is addressing the continuing challenges of strengthening health systems in developing nations so countries ultimately care for and improve the health of their own people, better protecting the world from global disease outbreaks.