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State of the Union 2015: What “Smart Development” Means for Reform as the Clock Winds Down

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015
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See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

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On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his next-to-last State of the Union address in which he laid out an ambitious, and largely domestic, agenda for his last two years of office. While the foreign policy pieces of the address were more concerned with defense (mostly) and diplomacy (occasionally), we were pleased to hear the President highlight the importance of development and ending extreme poverty.

In discussing the Ebola crisis, which began spreading through West Africa this time last year, President Obama noted that we need to be investing “in smart development” and building “a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics.” Countries hardest hit by Ebola are those lacking the domestic health systems to effectively deal with the disease — a problem that could be mitigated by focusing more resources on strengthening local systems and broadening health services.

President Obama also made the case for acting on climate change or we risk increasing “massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.” This need to address climate change and integrate climate resilience into our development work has been echoed by the discussions around the Post-2015 agenda and is likely to be a key theme in the forthcoming Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

We thank President Obama for pointing to the need for smarter, more effective development, and recognize that this administration has implemented a number of important reforms. Efforts like USAID Forward and the Local Solutions initiative are helping to ensure that we are looking for locally led solutions to development problems. The State Department and USAID have established and implemented evaluation policies to improve agency M&E practices. USAID’s reconstituted policy shop encourages learning. PEPFAR and the MCC have prioritized open data and transparency to drive better development programs.

We call on the administration to institutionalize these reforms so that their benefits are sustained. And we ask that commitments made with regard to transparency and country ownership are met. Above all, we call on the President to quickly appoint a capable development leader as USAID administrator in order to sustain and further these gains before he leaves office.

This Administration has made strides to change the narrative on U.S. foreign assistance, but as President Obama said last night, “the job is not yet done.” We look forward to working with the Administration over these final two years to institutionalize this important progress.

Transforming U.S. Foreign Aid through Country Ownership

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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Throughout my life, and particularly in my work with Save the Children, I have seen examples of where aid has made a powerful difference in helping to transform people’s lives; and I’ve seen it fail.

When it works, whether it comes in the form of health, nutrition, or humanitarian projects that prevent thousands of deaths or in education that provides children the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, aid can play a crucial role in meeting the needs of billions of children and families around the globe and literally changing the future.

And when it fails, its impacts range from insignificant to actually leaving communities worse off in a range of ways.

Because of this, an important part of our advocacy at Save the Children is directed at improving the way aid is delivered to maximize its positive impact.  Research has shown time and time again that foreign assistance is more effective and sustainable when those local governments and communities on the receiving end have a strong voice in deciding and developing the relevant projects, using their vast local knowledge and skills.   When developing countries are in the driver’s seat and leading the design, implementation, and management of development activities we are closer to achieving country ownership.

Country ownership has become an increasingly important aspect of U.S. development projects.  In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched USAID Forward, a set of policy reforms, to strengthen the agency and restructure its approach to aid.  The Local Solutions initiative is a key aspect of USAID Forward that focuses on bolstering local capacity, promoting country ownership, and increasing sustainability of program results.  The initiative has the potential to transform the way aid is administered, implemented, and ultimately the effects it has on millions of lives in developing countries.

However, the initiative currently uses a single indicator to track progress – percentage of USAID Mission funds provided directly to local institutions.  This single measure is insufficient to evaluate such a multi-faceted effort.

Save the Children has recently released a report entitled, Tracking USAID’s Efforts on the Local Solutions Initiative: A Review of Select Procurements in Six Countries.  For this research, Save the Children looked at the procurement documents that so often shape how policies at the headquarters level translate into programs in the field.  Based on the content of these procurements, our researchers scored USAID’s efforts to promote county ownership across the six countries.  They found that in all six countries reviewed, USAID integrates country ownership principles satisfactorily.  Moreover, USAID collects a wealth of data through its programs that could be analyzed to assess its multi-faceted effort more comprehensively and used more strategically to inform its operations – particularly its engagement with local institutions.

The report recommends three action for USAID: 1) conduct a more comprehensive review of efforts across all countries implementing the Local Solutions initiative to report on progress and identify and scale up promising practices; 2) adopt additional standardized indicators to complement the current single indicator and expand the agency’s ability to track more broadly its efforts to promote country ownership; and 3) pay more attention to the local institutions working on agency-funded activities as sub-grantees or sub-contractors.

Effective tools to evaluate country ownership can impact the way USAID does development and could shift the entire sector towards practices that advance countries’ local priorities and ownership over decisions about their own development.  Similarly, adopting a consistent set of indicators would ensure that all USAID Missions around the world “speak the same language” and learn from each other.

The procurements reviewed show that USAID is prompting movement in the right direction with the Local Solutions initiative.  In Uganda, USAID is emphasizing the need for its projects to be measured against the goals of the Government of Uganda, not just its own goals.  Furthermore, USAID is recommending that monitoring and evaluation of project activities be carried out with participation from local organizations.

Country ownership – and USAID’s Local Solutions initiative – can transform the way aid is delivered while upholding human dignity and supporting people to become agents of their own development.  Save the Children’s report attempts to fill crucial information gaps in the implementation of USAID’s Local Solutions initiative and draw the aid community’s attention to the urgent need for a comprehensive progress update as the initiative enters its fifth year of implementation.

MFAN Congratulates MCC on Its 10th Anniversary

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
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November 18, 2014 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network congratulates the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) on 10 years of fighting global poverty and delivering foreign assistance in an innovative, transparent and results-oriented way. MCC has been an important partner in driving U.S. foreign assistance reform, especially in MFAN’s priority areas of accountability and country ownership.

Throughout the past 10 years, the MCC has been committed to delivering smart, effective foreign assistance by focusing on partnerships, country-led solutions and implementation, accountability and results. MCC has put a strong emphasis on policy performance, which has had a positive impact on generating country-led policy reforms in partner countries – known as the “MCC Effect.”  The agency has also been a global leader when it comes to aid transparency and the top U.S. agency in sharing timely and quality data about its work. In 2013 and 2014 MCC was rated first and third, respectively, on Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, a ranking of more than 60 of the world’s leading donors.

We once again extend our congratulations to the MCC and its 300 dedicated employees on a decade of pioneering reform and look forward to continuing to work closely with the agency to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective and accountable.

The 114th Congress and Prospects for International Development

Friday, November 14th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings blog on November 13.

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Conventional wisdom has it that foreign assistance is best supported by a Republican president and a Democratic Congress—Democrats are generally supportive of foreign assistance and a Republican president can convince his party’s legislators to support his foreign assistance programs. Add to that the dysfunction of recent congresses and the continued heightened partisanship, and the prospects for the newly elected 114th Congress taking constructive action on foreign assistance would appear dim.

For three reasons, I believe this pessimistic structural assessment does not reflect current reality, though it’s true that funding levels will remain a struggle and could be a target of a future budget battle.

International Crises Remind Us of the World

Turning to the old adage of “never waste a crisis,” the inward-looking turn reflected in opinion polls at the beginning of the 2014 election cycle was reversed by early fall—likely due to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Ebola, which, by reminding the body politic that we ignore the world at our own peril, returned the American public to its more historical position of supporting international engagement. Further, as analyzed by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “isolationism” was the big loser in the campaign. While there candidates advocating for retrenchment from international affairs, few of those articulating a “closed door” were elected and a number of the new members have international experience through the military, business, and other venues (full disclosure: I serve as honorary chairman of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition).

Strong Leadership on Committees to Continue

The congressional committees with jurisdiction over international affairs are likely to be under the leadership of committed internationalists who understand and support foreign assistance. Where the leadership will change in the Senate, the incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, are strong supporters of foreign assistance and they and their staffs have demonstrated interest in legislation to modernize foreign assistance policy and programs. Their predecessors, Senators Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, respectively, also are strong supporters of foreign assistance and likely to serve as the ranking Democrats on the committees. In the House, Nita Lowey is slated to retain her position as the ranking Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee and the candidates to succeed subcommittee Chair Kay Granger also are supporters of foreign assistance. On the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Henry Royce and ranking Democrat Elliot Engel will retain their positions.

Less Partisanship, but Resources Remain in Jeopardy

Most of the current issues involving foreign assistance fly under partisan radar. Sure, there will be the perennial contest around family planning policies and struggles around funding for a few less favorite accounts like the United Nations and the multilateral banks. Members will disagree on the nature of and how exactly to confront the Islamic State and Ebola, but at the end of the debates they will support U.S. policies and resources to confront these two scourges.

Just as the Obama Administration has supported and continued key Bush Administration initiatives—notably PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—so, too, has the Republican Congress generally supported Obama initiatives in the foreign assistance realm.

There are ongoing and new efforts to write some of the initiatives into law, specifically in three areas. There has been strong support for legislation to authorize Power Africa; the bill has passed the House and has good support in the Senate. In recent months Obama’s Feed the Future has been the subject of serious administration/Congress/civil society deliberations to draft implementing legislation, and those discussions are expected to result in a bill with strong bipartisan support. The Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act would write into law the Administration’s policy initiatives on data transparency and evaluation. It has bipartisan support and is the subject of discussions to move the current bill in the lame-duck session or a revised draft in the new Congress. That consideration of moving the legislation to the next Congress conveys legislators’ comfort with the idea that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

There is reason for concern on the matter of resources. Not from immediate action, as both House and Senate appropriations committees have marked international affairs for fiscal year 2015 at $49.9 billion, just below the FY 2014 level of $50.6 billion and $1.6 billion shy of the administration’s request of $51.5 billion for FY 2015. The current continuing resolution is actually at $50.4 billion. And the Congress is likely to support most or part of the administration’s emergency request for Ebola of $6.4 billion.

The greater concern is for FY 2016 and 2017. Sequestration kicks back in next year and there will be efforts to protect defense, possibly at the expense of non-defense accounts. And, while the appropriators will remain advocates of foreign assistance funding, the House and Senate budget committees have traditionally not been so supportive. Incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions is in keeping with this mold. Back to not wasting a crisis—Ebola, the Islamic State, and the continuing uncertainty through much of the Middle East should be enough to keep members focused on the importance of the ability of the U.S. to be an active participant in world events.

The Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

Two related international affairs matters to keep an eye on are the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (EXIM) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). EXIM does not traditionally fall under the development rubric, but the export finance agency is slated under the administration’s plans to provide $5 billion of the $7 billion of U.S. government funding for power projects under its signature initiative Power Africa. Over the past several years EXIM has been a prime target of conservative Republicans. Rejecting the arguments that it creates jobs, levels the playing field for U.S. exporters, and pays its own way, they attack the agency as corporate welfare. Anticipating Republican control of the Senate in the new Congress, they orchestrated a temporary extension of EXIM’s authorities to June 2015, so reauthorization of EXIM will likely be a donnybrook battle for the new session.

Reauthorization of OPIC is less controversial. A temporary extension is in the continuing resolution and will be carried forward in whatever replaces the continuing resolution (it expires December 11), either a new continuing resolution into early next year or an omnibus appropriations bill for the entire fiscal year 2015. A permanent reauthorization has been part of the Power Africa legislation and could be carried there or in other legislation.

Engage the Congress

Bottom line: it’s worth our time to engage with the 114th Congress, as there will be opportunities to improve our foreign assistance policies and programs and funding levels will need our support.

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

Friday, October 17th, 2014
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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.

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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.