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Archive for the ‘State Department’ Category

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.

U.S.-based NGOs Applaud Passage of Coast Guard Legislation that Maintains Efficiencies in U.S. International Food Aid Program

Friday, December 19th, 2014
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The organizations listed below strongly support the exclusion of harmful provisions for U.S. international food aid programs from the recently passed Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014. The amended legislation sustains recent efficiency gains in U.S. international food aid programs. Provisions included in the original legislation would have negatively impacted crucial U.S. international food aid programs and their beneficiaries.  Thankfully, these provisions were not included in the bill that ultimately passed the House and Senate.

Section 318 of the original bill, H.R. 4005, would have increased from 50 to 75 percent the portion of U.S.-sourced food aid commodities that must be transported on privately owned, U.S.-flagged commercial vessels, increasing transportation costs by $75 million. Sections 316 of H.R. 4005 and 321 of H.R. 5769 would have allowed the Secretary of Transportation to apply cargo preference rules on international food aid programs run by other departments and agencies without their expert consultation, severely limiting transparency and oversight of cargo preference enforcement.

The exclusion of these harmful provisions from final legislation preserves recent improvements in U.S. international food aid programs, ensuring at least 2 million vulnerable people will not lose access to life-saving food aid from the United States. Additionally, it ensures departments and organizations implementing food aid programs will continue to be consulted on application of cargo preference rules and allowed to provide valuable insight on how those rules might impact program implementation.

The organizations listed below thank all members of Congress who worked to exclude those provisions that would have been harmful to international food aid programs. We thank the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate Commerce and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees for moving forward with legislation that does not negatively impact lifesaving food aid programs.

We extend a special thank you to food aid champions Senators Corker and Coons, and Representatives Royce and Engel, for their continued, tireless work to ensure international food aid programs reach the maximum number of people in need in the most effective way possible.

With 805 million people around the world going hungry every day, every dollar of food aid must be used responsibly and effectively. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to strengthen U.S. food aid, sustaining the United States’ leading role as a compassionate provider of international food assistance to those in need around the world.

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Root, root, root….for transparency

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
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See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

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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.

A Tale of Two Websites

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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Please see below for a guest post from MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chairs, Diana Ohlbaum and Lori Rowley. Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rowley is the Director for Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.

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The first great boon for transparency of U.S. foreign assistance came in December 2010 with the launch of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a visual presentation of budget and appropriations data that previously had been difficult for outsiders to obtain.  Created by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources (F), the Dashboard aimed to bring together information from all 22 U.S. government agencies carrying out foreign aid programs.  Its main purpose was to be a resource for Congress and the American public.

The second great boon for aid transparency came about a year later, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared U.S. backing for the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which publishes standardized and comparable data from public and private donors as well as developing country stakeholders.  Because the IATI Registry is far more comprehensive than the Dashboard, it promises to be a more useful resource for developing countries themselves.

But there was a hitch: the Dashboard and IATI were using different formats and collecting different fields of information.  The State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and other U.S. agencies were burdened by either having to produce the information twice, in two different schemas, or else by having to translate data from one schema to the other.  As a result, there were bottlenecks and delays, and reported information often was stripped of important details in the process.

In light of this mismatch, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) Accountability Working Group decided that one of its top priorities for 2014 would be to ensure that foreign assistance data is published fully, without delay and without compromises to quality, to the IATI Registry.  Rather than duplicating the data, we argued that it made sense for U.S. agencies to adopt the IATI standard – along with a special extension for details that are unique to the U.S. government – and to use that as the basis for the Dashboard.  This would allow agencies to produce one set of data that could be easily adapted for both purposes.

Led by one of our partners, Publish What You Fund, the Working Group met several times over the spring and summer with the Dashboard team to convey our concerns and recommend solutions.  Publish What You Fund, which ranks the transparency of all major donors in its annual Aid Transparency Index, provided sustained technical assistance to the State Department to help it make the conversion in a timely and efficient way.  With a deadline approaching for collection of information for their 2014 Aid Transparency Index – due to be released on October 8th – the Dashboard made an all-out bid to fix the problem.

So we are pleased to announce that these efforts have all paid off: the Dashboard has adopted the IATI standard with a U.S. extension.  This has eliminated some of the data quality issues and will help to streamline the process for data being published to the IATI Registry.  Let’s give credit where it’s due: to the Dashboard team at the State Department for recognizing and successfully addressing this problem, and to Publish What You Fund for midwifing a solution.

Although this particular MFAN benchmark has been met, it’s only a small part of a much broader transparency agenda.  There are still serious problems with data quality and missing data, and we are calling on the State Department to develop and publicly release a management plan that explains how it will meet its obligations for full IATI implementation by the end of 2015.   USAID in its 2014 Open Government Plan has pledged to “investigate the costs of fulfilling additional IATI reporting requirements and publish a cost management plan which elaborates the findings,” which we applaud, and we urge the State Department to do the same.  Both plans are needed on an urgent basis if adequate funding is to be identified and technology upgrades are to be made by the promised deadline.  In the end, the higher the quality of the data, the more useful a tool it becomes for strengthening the effectiveness of foreign assistance.

USAID’s Frontiers in Development Asks More Questions than It Answers…and That’s a Good Thing

Monday, September 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Casey Dunning, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. This post originally appeared on CGD’s blog on September 23, 2014.

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Last week USAID held its second Frontiers in Development conference, a two-day smorgasbord of keynotes, panels, roundtables, and an Innovation Marketplace all focused on Ending Extreme Poverty.  As the agenda can attest, USAID sought to explore its role (and that of foreign assistance, writ large) in ending extreme poverty from multiple angles. From ‘Can it be done?’ to ‘How will it be done?’ to ‘Who will do it?’, the notion of Ending Extreme Poverty received a 48-hour in-depth examination from some of global development’s leading thinkers and practitioners as over 600 members of the development community observed.

I applaud Frontiers for tackling tough questions directly related to ending extreme poverty, including inequality, fragility and instability, climate change, and the spread of Ebola. While I didn’t leave the conference certain USAID had the answers to ending extreme poverty as an agency, I did come away thinking it had at least asked the right questions and was pursuing this noble, and incredibly difficult, mission with eyes wide open.

Because ending extreme poverty looks to be a global vision around which the world will coalesce for the next 15 years through the post-2015 agenda, it’s encouraging that USAID is seeking to bring intellectual and policy firepower to what could easily become rhetoric with no real substance behind it.

Frontiers offered a substantive two days. Below are my additional takeaways, observations, and general points of interest. It should be noted that this list is completely subjective as I was not able to attend every session, not yet being able to be in two places at once.

  • The theme of ‘Ending Extreme Poverty’ pervaded every event. With 29 separate events and more than 86 speakers, I would have forgiven Frontiers for occasionally veering off-topic – but it didn’t. The conference maintained coherence in exploring multiple sectors, issues, and populations through the lens of extreme poverty.
  • It wasn’t only US voices doing the talking. President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, former President John Kufuor of Ghana, Foreign Affairs Minister Tedros Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, and Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International (just to name a few) all spoke about country and context-specific approaches to ending extreme poverty.
  • Frontiers rightly focused on Africa. Some colleagues thought the conference should have had a more balanced global focus, but I disagree. If we’re talking about extreme poverty, that’s where the majority of the extreme poor will reside. What’s more, Sub-Saharan Africa receives the highest levels of USAID funding (by region). This is called focus, folks; we can’t call for it and then get miffed when everything isn’t included.
  • Peace and stability are integral to ending extreme poverty. From Secretary of State John Kerry to President Kikwete to former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, I was struck by how often and how stridently numerous speakers pointed to conflict as one of the greatest drivers of increased poverty. This is nothing new, per se, but it was instructive to hear the importance of stability and good governance emerge from various perspectives. My hope is that this bodes well for the inclusion of these issues in the post-2015 agenda.
  • The world doesn’t have the right tools to end extreme poverty…yet. In his address, Secretary Kerry noted that, “development tools have not kept up with a changing world…too many barriers still exist.” Likewise USAID Administrator Raj Shah declared the United States must “earn the right to lead every single day. And unless we seek to evolve and get better, many of our partners—including the countries we celebrate today—will simply look elsewhere for solutions.” The entireFrontiers conference seemed to be a starting answer to this challenge, with the Innovation Marketplace offering pioneering practical solutions and the many sessions offering new approaches and models for how the world might end extreme poverty.