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2013 SOTU’s Vision For Global Poverty & Progress: How Far Have We Come?

Friday, January 31st, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, senior fellow at Brookings and MFAN co-chair. Ingram writes about celebrating the progress made to achieve the ambitious development goals President Obama outlined in his 2013 State of the Union address and recognizing there is still work to be done. The original post can be found on Brookings’ Up Front blog.


For those of us who care about poverty and progress in developing countries, missing from President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was any serious discussion of development.  It therefore is useful to recall the strong vision on development he presented in the State of the Union address a year ago.  In a single, but powerful paragraph, he stated:

“We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all—not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do.  In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day.  So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve; and helping communities tofeed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.”

The italics are mine—to demonstrate that this short paragraph contains a commitment to 9 key components that together comprise an ambitious development agenda, headlined by the “eradication of extreme poverty,” but also noting the critical roles of empowering women, improving education and ending preventable child deaths.

Despite only a slight nod to development this year, the assumption is that this paragraph remains the Obama administration’s operative vision to which the administration can expect to be held accountable and against which global progress can be measured. A cursory assessment on each of those 9 key components would suggest encouraging progress:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty. The past decade has witnessed unexpected progress in reducing world poverty. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for cutting poverty in half by 2015, a target that has been met early. The portion of people living on less than $1.25/day fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2010. By several calculations and with a continuation of current trends, extreme poverty could decline to 3 percent by 2030.  The administration, specifically USAID, has been struggling to translate its commitment to eradicate extreme poverty into a coherent strategy—not such an easy task given the complex nature of development and conflicting U.S. interests—but the administration’s policies and initiatives do translate into tackling poverty through direct means and through promoting economic growth and prosperity in developing countries.  It is noteworthy that USAID today issued a refreshed mission statement that puts poverty alleviation in the center: “We partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.”
  • Connecting more people to the global economy. In December, the ill-fated Doha Round finally produced the Bali Package that brings results which, while modest, are valuable in expanding trade access for developing countries. The principal near-term development trade agenda rests in the hands of Congress: whether the Senate will overcome a myopic single-senator hold to secure renewal of the GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) that has already expired, and whether Congress will renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act before its expiration in 2015.
  • Empowering women. The administration’s record on empowering women is considerable and simply needs to stay on a steady course, from USAID’s and the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) policies and programs that advance gender inclusiveness, and the State Department and USAID’s efforts to tackle trafficking and violence against women.
  • Giving the young and bright to new opportunities to serve.  The FY2014 appropriations bill provides a modest increase in funding for the Peace Corps, and it is reported that the White House will soon significantly scale up the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) for both African and American youth.
  • Feed. The U.S. bilaterally, and in collaboration with other countries, is making a significant investment in the ability of the world to feed its growing population. Food security is being advanced by Feed the Future, through which the U.S. made a $3.5 billion pledge as part of an $18.5 billion global commitment to address hunger, and the more recent New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a public/private global effort announced at the 2012 G8 Summit to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty by 2022.
  • Power.  Power, which was mentioned last night, was tackled in 2013 with the new initiative Power Africa, a unique public/private program that links improvement in government policies and regulations with packaging the finance needed to “power” proposed energy investment projects.  The U.S. government has committed to providing $7 billion of finance that will generate $14 billion from financial partners.
  • Educate. Despite several decades of considerable progress in bringing education to the world’s children, some 57 million children remain out of school.  USAID and other donors have moved from just focusing on getting kids through the school door to making sure there is a learning experience inside the classroom. Thanks to continued support for education in Congress, funding is bumped up slightly for FY2014.
  • Preventable childhood deaths. The story is encouraging.  The global under-5 mortality rate has been cut nearly in half, from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 in 2012, or from 12.6 million to 6.6 million children a year. Encouragingly, the rate in reduction has sped up from 1.2 percent during 1990-1995 to 3.9 percent for 2005-2012. This increased pace in reducing preventable child mortality suggests that concerted effort could produce even more progress.
  • AIDS-free generation. Leaders are lining up behind the concept of an AIDS-free generation. The United States, through PEPFAR, has been leading the charge to stem this scourge.  As of September 30, 2013, 6.7 million individuals are receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, a fourfold increase from 1.7 million in 2008. In FY2013, 240,000 babies, who otherwise would have been infected, were born HIV/AIDS free. The world is rid of small pox; we are three countries short of defeating polio; the concept of an AIDS-free generation may sound fanciful today, but the trends and treatments are with us and the goal could be achieved with expanded political will and behavioral change.

At a time when we would wish we were closer to reaching the MDGs, and our optimism is burdened by continued poverty and the accompanying hunger, ill-health and strife, it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made and the good efforts that are being made by the U.S. government, private U.S. organizations and individuals, and their counterparts around the world.

It also is important to note that there remain other significant parts to the development agenda and commitments to be fulfilled—making our aid process more accountable through better evaluation, transparency, and learning; moving from good policy to actual implementation of local ownership, starting with listening to the needs and solutions of local institutions and individuals; effectively promoting open, democratic political institutions and civil society; and leveraging the talents and experiences outside of government, including the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and academia.

We must both commend the progress that has been made and push harder on the ambitious agenda that remains to reduce poverty and bring economic opportunities to those left out.


Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan Makes the Case for More Flexible Food Aid

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, senior fellow at Brookings and MFAN co-chair. Ingram writes about how current reform proposals to international food aid can increase flexibility in emergency situations. The original post can be found on Brookings’ Up Front blog.


Philippines On November 7, Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan hit the Philippines, affecting 9.7 million people, displacing 3 million, killing 3,637, and destroying 384,000 acres of rice, corn and other crops worth $105 million.

Congress, through the House/Senate farm bill conference, once again has the opportunity to provide the U.S. international food aid program the flexibility that is essential for our help to be effective in responding to life-threatening disasters.

Look at how the U.S. has responded in the days following the devastation by Yolanda/Haiyan. USAID’s Office of Food for Peace committed $7.75 million from the International Disaster Assistance account to the World Food Program to purchase food in the Philippines and neighboring countries. Fifty-five tons of nutritious emergency food products were airlifted from the U.S.  One thousand one hundred tons of rice, prepositioned in Sri Lanka for just such an emergency, is en route and should arrive around December 2nd. These limited actions ensure that the U.S. is able to provide immediate relief to those in dire need.

U.S. food assistance resources are restricted to the purchase of U.S. grown commodities that then have to be shipped across the ocean.  An expedited procurement of U.S. rice would arrive in the Philippines in late January or early February at the earliest. That is 10-12 weeks after the typhoon hit, which can help relieve medium-term food needs, but does nothing to address the hunger and starvation in the days and weeks immediately following the destruction and devastation.

And one might say the Philippines is lucky as the typhoon struck at the beginning of the U.S. fiscal year so resources are available; if such a disaster strikes in July or August, the limited cash is likely to have already been spent responding to earlier crises.

The United States is the number one responder to humanitarian crises around the world, and the 60-year old food assistance program is at the center of that capability. Food aid is an important tool of U.S. smart power. It reflects the humanitarian streak that runs through the American people and at the same time enhances our image and influence in the world, such as the overwhelming appreciation by the people of Indonesia for our helping in the recovery from the 2010 tsunami.

In certain circumstances, and for the medium term to relieve food shortages, shipping commodities from the U.S. makes sense. But not allowing the resources to be used to procure food in the nearest and most efficient market constrains U.S. responsiveness and does not reflect well on the generosity of the American people.

This crisis should not be wasted by allowing the United States food aid program to continue along lines that were relevant in the 1950s and 1960s but not in the 21st century. The U.S. government needs the flexibility to purchase food commodities in the most efficient market, which sometimes will be the U.S., sometimes the country affected, and sometimes neighboring countries.  This flexibility will allow more efficient use of U.S. taxpayer resources and better reflect American values. The reform of the program proposed by the Obama administration earlier this year would allow the same dollar value to reach 4 million additional people. That proposal lost on the House floor by only 17 votes. My guess is, if it were put to the House now, in light of Yolanda/Haiyan and the recent evidence that purchasing food locally is the only way to get food to those in need in Syria, the reform would pass.

The House/Senate conference on the farm bill should adopt not just the modest change of 20 percent flexibility found in the Senate bill, but allow up to 30-40 percent, or, even better, 50 percent of our food assistance to be used for local and regional purchase if that is the most efficient and readily available source.

Last week I was in North Carolina meeting with a farm organization representative and asked what the position of the organization and its members on the administration’s food aid reform proposal was. His response was that the issue was not high on their agenda but that farmers object to the notion of giving cash to corrupt governments. Not an unreasonable attitude. So I then asked what the response might be if they were told the cash did not go to governments (as it does not), but instead to the World Food Program and U.S. non-profit organizations (Mercy Corps and Catholic Relief Service) that have a long track record of effectively purchasing commodities on local and regional markets. He said, in that case, their response probably would be different.

Why has every other country moved to providing cash rather than home-grown commodities? For the simple reason of efficiency and responsiveness. One would think that the United States, seen around the world as the champion of free enterprise and market-based solutions, would see the logic in purchasing emergency commodities in the most efficient market available!


MFAN Statement: Rubio-Cardin Foreign Aid Transparency Bill Moves Forward in the Senate

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
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November 14, 2013 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

MFAN applauds the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for unanimously approving the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013 (S. 1271) introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). This bipartisan legislation would strengthen U.S. development programs in an era of constrained budget resources by directing U.S. agencies involved in foreign assistance to focus on more coherent, consistent, and transparent monitoring and evaluation to ensure that we get the most out of every dollar we spend on foreign assistance.

While the Obama Administration has emphasized its commitment to greater transparency and efficiency, as is evidenced in efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State to implement new evaluation policies, as well as by the U.S. committing to participate in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), there is still more work to be done. In the recently released 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI) by Publish What You Fund, the Millennium Challenge Corporation was ranked as the most transparent donor among the 67 global donors assessed; however, other U.S. agencies did not fare as well. Most notably, the Department of State and PEPFAR were ranked 40th and 50th respectively, falling into the ATI’s “Poor” and “Very Poor” categories.

The legislation would improve accountability, transparency, and overall effectiveness first by requiring the President to establish uniform interagency guidelines—with measurable goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans—across all U.S. foreign assistance programs.  The bill would require that comprehensive, timely, and comparable data on all U.S. foreign assistance be made publicly available on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. This would reinforce the good intentions of the Obama Administration, but also drive broader compliance from agencies and departments, as only six to date have posted information to the Dashboard since its launch in 2010. In addition, it would hold the Administration to account on its own existing policies, requiring that the uniform guidance be inclusive of security sector assistance as defined by the Security Sector Assistance (SSA) Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-23).

An earlier version of the legislation was introduced in the 112th Congress where it received an encouraging response. The bill was unanimously passed by the House with a vote of 390-0, and was unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but did not receive floor consideration before the session came to a close.

MFAN is strongly supportive of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013 (S. 1271) as an important step forward to codifying reforms that will ensure U.S. foreign assistance programs are more transparent, accountable, and effective and we commend Sens. Rubio and Cardin for their leadership on this issue. However, we feel the legislation must be rigorously applied to all foreign assistance programs, including those defined as security sector assistance by PPD-23. MFAN would also like to see the legislation track more closely with the commitment made by the U.S. to IATI, which would include publishing data on a quarterly basis, rather than a semi-annual basis as the bill currently prescribes.

MCC Named Most Transparent Donor in 2013 Aid Transparency Index

Thursday, October 24th, 2013
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Today Publish What You Fund released their 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI) and out of the 67 donors worldwide assessed, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) tops the list. The 2013 ATI is the third annual index, and this year marks the first time a U.S. Government agency has taken the top spot. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations comes in at Number 2, while the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) takes third.

2013 ATI Ranking

The index is based on information donors publish about their development projects and is then scored on 39 indicators divided into three categories: commitment to aid transparency; organization-level publication of financial information and general plans; and the availability of country-specific project activities. Format of the data also played a major role in this year’s rankings. Donors that publish data in machine-readable formats such as XML, per the IATI Standard, are rewarded because it makes the data easier to compare and use.

Five other USG agencies were among those assessed by the index, though none made it into the top tier “Very Good” category with the MCC. The Treasury Department came in at #19 and USAID came in at #22 in the “Fair” category, showing quite a bit of improvement in comparison to last year’s rankings. The Department of Defense came in at #27 and the Department of State at #40, both in the “Poor” category and PEPFAR in at #50 in the “Very Poor” category.

U.S. progress in terms of making aid data available is notable—and the State Department announced this week that the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) joined State, DOD, USAID, MCC, and Treasury in adding data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. But it is essential that the data be useful. Publishing to the IATI Standard, the only open data standard for aid information, ensures that data is comparable and usable for donors and recipients of aid.

The U.S. has set a goal of publishing 70 percent of its aid data to IATI by the end of the year and has pledged full implementation of its IATI commitment by 2015, though it seems unlikely they will meet these goals at the current pace.

2013 Aid Transparency Index

Thursday, October 24th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from MFAN Co-Chair and Brookings senior fellow George Ingram on today’s release of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index. The post originally appeared on Brookings Up Front blog. Be sure to watch the public event hosted by Brookings, which will be live streamed beginning at 3:30 pm EST.


Today Brookings hosts the public release of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index—the only global measure of donors’ aid transparency.

A big hurrah to the MCC and congratulations to Treasury and USAID! 

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is to be celebrated, not just for leading the American pack, but for coming in first in the overall global rankings.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Treasury Department are to be congratulated for showing significant improvements since 2012.  The Department of State, Department of Defense and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) clearly have a lot of catching up to do.

At the policy level, the commitment and leadership of the Obama administration—through several White House directives  instructing all agencies to embrace open government and open data that is machine readable and readily usable—has been superb.  It has demonstrated it understands the value of making U.S. assistance data publicly available through the innovative Foreign Assistance Dashboard and subsequent agreement to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Why, and for whom, is making assistance data publicly available so important?  Publicly available data:

  • Helps donors make more informed decisions, manage their programs better and coordinate their aid efforts with other donors’ assistance.
  • Enables recipient governments to know where assistance is going in their country so they can better allocate their own budget resources.
  • Allows citizens to be better informed on government decisions and therefore better able to hold government accountable.
  • Feeds the private sector with a new resource on which to create new business services. Publication to IATI is picking up steam.

Donors accounting for 86 percent of official development finance (ODF) are committed to publishing to IATI by the end of 2015 and those accounting for 69 percent are now reporting some information to the IATI registry.  Only a relatively small number of U.S. civil society organizations, such as Plan USA, have committed to publishing their data to IATI.  A few leading foundations such as Gates and Hewlett have joined IATI as well.

As aid transparency is a departure from business as usual (the typical opaqueness of government), the initial decision to make U.S. assistance data publicly available was not an easy one, and the Obama administration deserves due credit.  With more than 25 U.S. government agencies involved in providing assistance, implementation, despite considerable effort, has been more difficult.  This is where attention now needs to double down.

In the first three years of the dashboard, a mere five agencies—USAID, MCC, State, Treasury and Defense—have posted only partial data.  They were joined just this week by the African Development Foundation.  Where is the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and data-driven PEPFAR?  Where is activity level data, so that users can determine where and how the aggregate level assistance is being used?  Where are the links to planning and evaluation documents?

The U.S. has pledged full implementation of its commitment to IATI by 2015.  At the current pace it likely will miss that goal.  The MCC and Treasury, admittedly with more simplified data sets, have demonstrated that compliance with IATI is possible.  USAID has also provided evidence of the results of good effort.

There are three problems.  One, most agencies have not made their data public, either to the dashboard or to IATI.  Two, the U.S. has not committed to providing data for some of the most relevant IATI fields, such as activity budgets and results and links to project and performance documents, although agencies have the data and can publish it.  MCC has done so already.  Three, the current process for posting U.S. data to the IATI registry is for the data to first go to the dashboard. However, data that agencies are providing are not being posted to the IATI registry in either a timely fashion or in complete, data rich form—the dashboard is not using the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s XML format but, rather, spreadsheets that lose some of the detail of the data.

The U.S. can fulfill its obligations through three steps:

  • Establish precise plans and timetables for each agency to publish its assistance data to the dashboard and IATI.
  • Provide data for the full range of IATI fields, including data at the activity level and on results, as the MCC has done.
  • Allow full data sets to be posted to IATI.  There are two alternatives for accomplishing this goal. One, the dashboard can adopt the IATI standard.  Alternatively, eliminate the requirement that agencies send their data through the dashboard.  Accept the fact that the dashboard is valuable for what it was originally designed for—collecting and presenting U.S. assistance data—and remove it as a hindrance to agencies publishing their data directly to IATI.

Finally, nongovernment aid providers and implementers need to step up and join the transparent data era.  In this day, opaqueness should be a thing of the past for all of us.