blog logo image

Archive for the ‘MCC’ Category

A Race to the Top: The 2014 Aid Transparency Index and Why it Matters

Friday, October 17th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

See below for a guest post from Sarah Lucas, Program Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This piece originally appeared on the Hewlett Foundation’s blog on October 16.

***

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) won the race to the top in 2014. But if the past few years are any indication, it won’t hold onto the top spot for long. Last year the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation took top honors, and in 2012 it was the UK Department for International Development. The fact that the race is on—for increased transparency in foreign assistance—is a huge tribute to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI). The Index, in its fourth year of publication, ranks an ever-growing number of global donors (currently 68) on how transparent their spending is.

Last week’s launch of the 2014 ATI at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC offered four very different leaders in transparency a chance to talk about how ATI is inspiring agencies to action, and why that matters—one each from a multilateral donor, a bilateral donor, a civil society network, and a ministry of finance.

Ranking tenth in 2012, and forth in 2013, UNDP crept their way up to #1 on the Index in 2014. They took the long-view, built the necessary systems, and in the words of Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, they made a deliberate decision to change their culture and mindset toward openness—not just at headquarters, but across their 140 country offices.

If UNDP ran a marathon to the top spot, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) ran a sprint. PEPFAR ranks only 30th on the 2014 Index, so why the hype? Well, just last year they were number 50. PEPFAR is a clear case of what you can achieve if you have a real champion for open data in the drivers’ seat. Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and head of PEPFAR, is just that. With three decades working in HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health, she came into office with a clear-eyed and heartfelt interest in data. She started at PEPFAR in April 2014, just three months before the cut-off for data collection for the 2014 ATI. After the launch event, a representative of Publish What you Fund mentioned that Birx has asked them what she could do to improve on the Index. No one believed she could move the needle in 2014 because she had so little time. But in the course of just a few weeks, she took the program up 20 spots. Proof positive that political will is more important than the technical or administrative complications of opening the books.

As interesting as the horserace is, it is not nearly as interesting as why UNDP and PEPFAR made these moves. Why do these agencies want to be in the race at all?

The most common “whys” behind aid transparency center on two principles:

Facilitate accountability—If citizens (in both donor and recipient countries) have more information about aid flows, they can better hold their governments accountable for using it well. Dalitso Kubalasa, Executive Director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, made this case clearly at the launch event. For years he and his colleagues have literally had to knock on the doors of donors and their own government to eke out data about who is spending what in his country. That’s definitely one way to slow him down in holding his government accountable!

Improve planning—How can country governments, and their donor partners, plan interventions and allocate resources if they don’t have a clear picture of what others are doing? How do you know whether to allocate your scarce education resources to teacher training, building classrooms, or school feeding programs if you don’t know who is doing what in the sector?

These reasons are compelling enough. But Birx and Xu took it a big step further. At the launch, they told us why increased transparency matters for their ability to get their jobs done. Together, they argued that more transparency helps them:

Build a base of support—Xu noted that UNDP relies on voluntary contributions and being transparent about what they do makes it easier to attract support. Birx pointed out that in the face of so many domestic priorities, the American people deserve to know how aid dollars are being spent. She also argued that only with hard data can you make the case that we are not “done” with HIV/AIDS even though global advocates have partly moved on to other things.

Promote innovation and learn from failure—Subject yourself to scrutiny, Xu argued, and you’ll learn how to improve. “There is a lot of self-interest in this,” he said. And while most data agencies don’t yet release much data on program results (focusing first on the more universally comparable financial data), Publish What You Fund hopes they will in the future. Birx is on board with that. “Negative results would be great,” she said, because they give you a chance to build on lessons, do better in the future and help others avoid your mistakes.

These additional “whys”—as compelling as they are—are inwardly-focused. All of the speakers, including keynote Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance from Nigeria, encouraged us to dream even bigger. The future vision for aid transparency includes being able to:

Spend more time doing good work, and less time tracking down the dollars—Several audience members rightfully asked, who is actually using aid data in developing countries? I’llnever forget meeting the poor guy in Malawi charged with tracking and coordinating across donor-funded health programs. Tucked away in a basement office in the Ministry of Health, he had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with binders, each labeled for a different donor—PEPFAR, Global Fund, JICA, UNDP, USAID, SIDA, AFDB, DFID, and on and on. Imagine if instead of riffling through all these binders to answer the question, “how much are donors spending on malaria prevention and treatment in Malawi?” he could go to a one-stop-shop for data online? That vision is why the ATI not only measures if agencies make their data public, but also whether they report it to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)’s Registry.

Set a high bar for developing governments too—Both Minister Okonjo-Iweala and Kubalasa were passionate on this point. Aid is only one piece of the puzzle, and for some, at least, an increasingly small one. There is a collective responsibility for development outcomes and transparency of financial flows. By getting their own houses in order, donors set an example for partner countries to publish their budgets as well. Minister Okonjo-Iweala said, almost to herself, “I haven’t published all the aid we have received . . . maybe I should do that. It would be a good complement to publishing our own budget.” She then added more firmly, “We are moving, but haven’t reached Nirvana yet!”

Better target resources to needs—Birx got practically giddy when she described what’s next for PEPFAR: site-level data (think villages or communities). She said all partner organizations funded by PEPFAR in 2014 had to agree to produce site-level data. Why is Birx pushing for this? If you look at average values for resources or results across all program sites, you won’t know which are under/over resourced relative to need. But if you can triangulate site-level data—for example, on resource flows, rates of counseling and testing services, results in prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and HIV positivity levels, you could seriously tailor your interventions, use your more money more wisely, and save more lives.

Attract creative minds to solve complex problems—In another call for multi-dimensional analysis, Birx expressed frustration at not being able to bring together economic, demographic, health, and financial data to really understand complex development problems and the resources dedicated to solving them. However, there are surely data-savvy, service-minded people who can do this. The key, she argued, is to make databases “appealing and discernable” enough to attract attention. It’s not enough to put gobs of data on a website. People need help navigating the data and understanding why they’re important. That’s why the ATI measures not only availability of data, but its accessibility too. Six of the seven top performers in 2014 have open data portals that promote access to and use of their data. For example, check out portals for DFIDSweden,UNDPMCC and the World Bank.

These speakers made a compelling case for why aid transparency matters, and why they will continue to push their own agencies to improve. With all this motivation, let’s hope we see even more donors jockeying to move up the Index in 2015.

Root, root, root….for transparency

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

***

We at MFAN have been eagerly anticipating the beginning of October. Not just because of playoff baseball and the possibility of a Beltway Series, but because with the beginning of October we get the release of Publish What You Fund’s latest Aid Transparency Index (ATI), a comprehensive ranking of international donors’ commitment to transparency.

Earlier this year MFAN released a refreshed policy agenda where we prioritized accountability through transparency, evaluation and learning as a powerful pillar of aid reform. More recently, we put together a two-pager that details why transparency is so important to ensuring that U.S. foreign assistance has maximum impact. When it comes to transparency, we believe that high-quality, accessible, timely, and usable data on how aid dollars are being spent can drive accountability – both in the U.S. and in partner countries.

The U.S. government has made notable progress in recent years to demonstrate its commitment to transparency. In 2010, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard was launched as a way to present budget and appropriations data on agencies doing foreign assistance. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S. was committed to fully implementing the International Aid Transparency Initiative by the end of 2015.

With the release of Wednesday’s ranking, we will be looking closely at where the evaluated U.S. agencies fall. Will the Millennium Challenge Corporation keep the top spot? Will PEPFAR (ranked Very Poor in 2013) and the State Department and Department of Defense (both ranked Poor) have made any significant improvements?

There is reason to be hopeful. This year, PEPFAR, the State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services started to publish data to the Dashboard. USAID is in the process of conducting a pilot study on how aid data is being used in three partner countries in order to better inform their own thinking on transparency. And the Dashboard recently moved to publish data to the common XML IATI standard, making U.S. aid data easier to use and of better quality; and last week began to roll out a newly redesigned and more user-friendly website. But a lot of data is still missing and the U.S. still has much work to do before meeting its IATI commitment a little over a year from now.

As die-hard fans of transparency, we look forward to digging into the results on Wednesday; and to seeing whether the high-level commitments the U.S. has made to transparency are making it a real contender on the global stage.

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

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

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.

***

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
Bookmark and Share

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
Bookmark and Share

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

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