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A tailored U.S. extension adds value, but our work isn’t done yet

Monday, August 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Catalina Reyes, Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund.

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When the U.S. made its first foray into the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), it adopted a “whole of government” approach. While there is merit to having various agencies of government speaking with one voice, this also creates problems when it comes to publishing quality data.

We were very encouraged when the U.S. changed course on this and adopted the IATI standard, with a tailored U.S. extension. This is consistent with other donors’ practices and means we’re now all reading from the same page – or at least from the same list of fields.

It might seem like a technical detail, but the U.S. extension is a big step forward, and we want to congratulate the government for using IATI as a basis for agencies’ publication to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.Dashboard image(1)

MCC has already used this new extension to publish to the Dashboard, and we can confirm the data output is identical to the data input. Since the IATI standard is the only globally agreed standard for publishing aid information, it makes sense to use this when requesting information from donor agencies.

Of course, while this is a big step forward, our work is not yet done. Call me a perfectionist, but  I think U.S. data should be among the most detailed and useful of all major donors.

As the Dashboard and the various U.S. agencies continue to work on their commitments made at Busan, our key recommendations for improvements are:

Collect better data. Encourage agencies to input high quality information from the beginning of the project cycle. We know we can’t go back five years ago but USG should inform missions and staff working on information gathering about the changes happening in HQ.

Don’t lump all the data together.Segment aid data by agency, rather than aggregating into a single file per country. This will help to protect the quality of each agency’s data and preserve its integrity. If one agency improves orbreaks its data, it’s clear where the problem lies, and it doesn’t affect other agencies. This is important in encouraging frequent and steady improvements in the data over time.

Smooth the publication process. Automate publication directly to IATI, instead of relying on a manual transfer of data from agencies to foreignassistance.gov. The Dashboard and IATI are now using the same information fields. This means that the Dashboard can consume IATI data. And it should.

Automate generation of IATI data by agencies. Agencies should generate their IATI XML information from their own systems. This should be the goal and encouraged by the Dashboard. This should be a priority for State, USAID and MCC; others such as HHS, USDA and Treasury should then follow suit. We have some specific agency recommendations:

  • USAID should follow MCC’s lead and make sure data generation is as close to systems as possible, thereby likely resulting in higher data quality, bringing skills in-house and making the process sustainable and automated in the medium term. The aim should be to get the basic data right first, and then quickly move on to incorporating the sub-national geo-coding and project documents that are available elsewhere on USAID’s websites.
  • State needs to bring data generation closer to the Department’s own systems and make these able to speak to each other. This means that the data should come straight from the systems and undergo minimal or no manipulation. In doing this State should prioritize basic information such as project titles and dates for remaining projects that don’t have them.
  • PEPFAR should identify its activities as OGAC activities and not just State activities (e.g., identify that it’s OGAC within State Department), as they have different purposes and objectives, and should be a key champion of traceability down the chain of implementers.

There are positive changes happening within U.S. agencies and within the Dashboard and we think the adoption of the IATI standard is an important one. However, more is needed to achieve the Busan deadline of 2015. And the emphasis has to be on the quality of aid information if it is to be really useable by donors, partner countries and other users.

Our 2014 Aid Transparency Index is out soon, with more details about progress in the U.S. and globally. Stay tuned!

Statement: MFAN Welcomes African Heads of State to Historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
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MFAN Welcomes African Heads of State to Historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

August 4, 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 extends a warm welcome to the more than 50 African heads of state in Washington this week for the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The historic gathering is a unique opportunity for U.S. and African leaders to strengthen ties and build on the commitments made during President Obama’s trip to Africa last summer as well as those made in the Presidential Policy Directives on Global Development (PPD-6) and on the U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa (PPD-16).

This summit provides a rare but timely forum for discussing the importance of strengthening the way in which we engage with our developing country partners in Africa by prioritizing two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars – accountability through transparency, evaluation and learning; and country ownership of the priorities and resources for, and implementation of, development. MFAN, in conjunction with our partners, will be hosting discussions with government and civil society leaders around these two pillar areas. In addition, we are pleased to see the Obama Administration incorporating strong country ownership principles into a new initiative announced this week to reduce the number of preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths in Africa.

We look forward to further dialogue and advancement in these two critical areas so that U.S. assistance can be more supportive of African efforts to forge a path to prosperity for their citizens.

Please see MFAN’s new policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond, for more information about these pillars.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Africa’s Dramatic Development Story

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at Brookings and MFAN Co-Chair. This post originally appeared on the Brookings blog on July 28th.

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With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit taking place on August 4, now is a good time to reexamine the storyline around Africa. The continent has made progress in economic and social development well beyond expectations, but still has obstacles to overcome. It is time we approach the Africa narrative with enthusiasm, maybe cautious enthusiasm, but enthusiasm nonetheless.

Poverty and Development: The Pessimist’s Narrative

The two maps below reveal the story of the locus of extreme poverty shifting in a generation (1990 – 2010) from Asia and Africa to principally Africa. While there remain millions of people in Asia living in extreme poverty, the vast number of countries with extreme poverty affecting over 40 percent of the population are in Africa.

These maps reflect disturbing statistics. Africa is home to over 400 million people living in extreme poverty and three-quarters of the world’s poorest countries. One African in three is malnourished and over 500 million suffer from waterborne diseases. Twenty-four million Africans, nearly 70 percent of the global burden, are afflicted with HIV. Thirty million (one in four) primary-school-age African children and 20 million adolescents, are not in school.

According to the 2014 Fragile States Index the five countries in the highest category of fragility are all in Africa (South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan), and 10 of the 16 in the top-two most fragile categories are in Africa.

Turning the Page on the Past

But that is only part of the story. It would be easy to focus on these statistics and see Africa as hopeless, as has been all too common. But a more holistic picture reveals trends that are cause for considerable optimism. That picture is drawn by the maps presenting the level of absolute poverty in countries in Africa over the same period.

 What is striking is that the space representing poverty above 40 percent has shrunk, from 31 countries in 1990 to 22 countries in 2010. Delving deeper reveals a host of encouraging data.

Seventeen countries in Africa, accounting for over 40 percent of the population of the continent, have experienced a level of economic growth over 3 percent per capita since 1996. From 2000 to 2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa. Africa was the fastest-growing continent at 5.6 percent in 2013, and that momentum is expected to be sustained this year.

The poverty rate in Africa, estimated at 56.5 percent in 1990, is projected to fall to 42.3 percent in 2015. Most countries have achieved universal primary enrollment rates of 90 percent or higher. The primary school completion rate has risen from 53 percent in 1993 to 70 percent in 2011.

Almost half the countries of Africa have achieved gender parity in school. The proportion of women in national parliaments has reached nearly 20 percent, a milestone that only developed countries and Latin America have achieved.

Improvements in health have been dramatic. The under-five mortality rate declined by 47 percent, from 146 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 91 deaths in 2011. Maternal mortality fell by 42 percent, from 745 deaths per 100,000 live births to 429 deaths over the same period. The once seemingly unstoppable HIV/AIDS rate has, in fact, been reversed, with prevalence rates dropping from 5.9 percent in 2001 to 4.9 percent in 2011. Tuberculosis and malaria remain serious problems, but their spread has been largely stopped.

U.S. Assistance to Africa: Writing the Next Chapter

While external private investment flows have been a growing source of capital for Africa—a fivefold increase from major partners in the past decade as explained in a recent blog by my Brookings colleagues—for many countries in Africa foreign assistance remains an important source of development finance. One way to get a crude indication of the relative importance of foreign assistance is to compare it to the size of government revenues. The map below shows 20 countries in Africa for which total foreign assistance is equivalent to more than 40 percent of the national budget.

If one wonders whether Africa is a priority for U.S. assistance policy, just look at the numbers. At the 2005 Gleneagles Summit, the G-8 committed to increase assistance by $50 billion, half for Africa. The U.S. subsequently more than doubled its aid to Africa. Today, the U.S. and World Bank IDA (International Development Agency) vie as the largest donor to Africa, with shares at 17 percent of total assistance flows to Africa each. The next biggest donor is the European Union at 10 percent, followed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany, in that order.  In fact, aid to Africa from European nations has declined the last several years while the U.S. has maintained its Gleneagles commitment.

The U.S. priority for Africa has grown over the past decade. In 2002 U.S. economic development assistance (not counting humanitarian assistance) to Africa was 17 percent of total U.S. economic assistance. That percentage has steadily grown over the past decade to 40 percent for both FY2014 (estimated) and the budget request for FY2015. The priority given to Africa is even more impressive when you consider that U.S. budget levels for foreign assistance peaked in 2010, in which year 32 percent of U.S. economic development assistance was devoted to Africa. Despite a decline of approximately 20 percent of budget levels for all development assistance from 2010 to 2014, the magnitude of assistance for Africa has remained above $6 billion per year, accounting for Africa’s continued rise in percentage of total U.S. economic development assistance.

As with the U.S., Africa is a rising priority for China As reported by Yun Sun in a companion blog, Africa represented 46 percent of Chinese aid in 2009 but 52 percent in 2010-2012. The major difference between U.S. and Chinese assistance to Africa is that Chinese assistance is principally for infrastructure and economic activities, with negligible amounts for humanitarian purposes, and is mostly loans. In contrast, U.S. assistance is concentrated in the social sectors and is almost all grants. In addition, the U.S. is the major provider of humanitarian assistance to Africa.

For the past decade, health has been the main focus of U.S. assistance to Africa, accounting for approximately 80 percent of total U.S. economic assistance in recent years. But after a decade of growth, that focus may be begin to change to reflect the 2012 White House strategy statement on U.S. policy toward Africa. That policy document emphasizes governance, economic growth and trade, and peace and security. The accompanying chart shows the proposed shift in funding into those accounts in the FY2015 budget request. Whether Congress will go along with that shift remains to be seen.

Power Africa

One particularly recent innovative U.S. program is Power Africa, announced by President Obama in June 2012. Some 600 million Africans live without electricity. The goal of the program is to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa by adding 10,000 megawatts to output. The innovations in the program are multifold. Rather than the typical sequence of designing the program and then inviting in the private sector, the design started with canvassing the needs of private sector energy investors. Furthermore, the program joins together a focus on both governance and finance and operates across the U.S. government.

The initiative, led by USAID, involves 12 U.S. government agencies, some 40 private companies, and six African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania). The U.S. government has committed $7 billion in financing over five years, and private companies have committed another $ 14 billion. Development of the program involved identifying specific private sector investments that have not moved beyond the planning phase because of inhospitable host government regulations and policies, or inaction, and/or insufficient financing. In addition to providing financing, the equally important part of the program is the effort to help remove restrictive host country policies and regulations, and institute policies that more rationally regulate and encourage private investment.

Interest in Power Africa has grown in the U.S. Congress since it was announced. Congress may even up the ante on the president. HR 2548 (Electrify Africa Act) passed the House on May 5, and the companion Senate bill S 2014 (Energize Africa Act), would double the goal of Power Africa to 20,000 megawatts.

The development story in Africa is still being written. The African leaders who come to Washington in early August will have a large voice in how that story plays out. There remain many causes for concern, but more reasons for optimism.

Let’s forget about pledging a host of deliverables and hope that the result of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a frank exploration of the needs and potential for Africa, and a no-nonsense appraisal of how the U.S. can be most helpful. Let’s hope that the impact is to expand the priority that Africa holds for U.S. policy and show that this is a story in which the U.S. is determined to play its part.

Why Management Reform Is Sexy

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
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See below for a guest post by Andrea Koppel, Vice President of Global Engagement and Policy at Mercy Corps and MFAN Executive Committee member.

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I have a confession to make.   I may have a serious day job fighting for better policies to help vulnerable people around the world, but after hours I’m an avid consumer of tabloids.   Grocery store check-out lines – the longer the better.  Hair salons – I don’t mind waiting. Airport kiosks are my preferred venue for binge reading.  I’d choose a salacious, rumor-mongering US magazine over the more serious, well-sourced Foreign Affairs any day of the week.

Even at the uber intellectual State Department it’s hard to compete against sexy. Take for example ongoing discussions around selecting overarching foreign policy and development objectives for the next four years – a document known as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR II).

Good luck making that short list.  With titillating topics such as climate change, which Secretary of State John Kerry calls “as big a threat as terrorism”, and exciting new ventures such as USAID’s Global Development Lab, “management reform” risks being ignored like a wonky wallflower.

But just as a wealthy older man believes he’ll attract a trophy wife, I’d like to believe that much needed “management reform” will still catch the eye of QDDR II’s head honcho Tom Perriello.  If you read beyond the headline to see just how valuable these reforms can be – both in terms of efficiencies and impact – there’s a lot to like.

Let’s face it – while global poverty has decreased over the last 25 years, the number of extremely poor people has stayed about the same in the most fragile and conflict-affected countries.   By 2018, roughly half of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.  Many of these countries are of strategic importance to the U.S., yet they are also places where U.S. or international assistance has had little success in breaking cycles of conflict or poverty, despite two decades of concerted international development and humanitarian responses.   To try to figure out why that’s been the case, the Mercy Corps Policy and Advocacy team interviewed more than two dozen of our most experienced colleagues – many of whom live and work in these tough places.

Our conclusion is that if the Obama administration is to truly build momentum for its ambitious policy directive to eradicate extreme poverty in the world by 2030, it must address five distinct, yet interconnected problems:

1. U.S. conflict mitigation and management structures are disproportionately oriented towards crisis response, rather than crisis prevention or resilience building.

2. Few funding mechanisms address the underlying causes of extreme poverty or chronic insecurity.

3. Foreign assistance frameworks do not effectively target or reach the extreme poor.

4. Grant and contracting mechanisms discourage adaptive programming.

5. Assistance frameworks hinder, rather than cultivate new forms of partnerships and market-based solutions that can reach the extreme poor at scale in fragile states.

[Read Mercy Corps’ recommendations in our memo “Managing Chaos”.]

When I got home from work the other night, the latest issues of Rolling Stone and The Economist magazines had arrived in my mailbox.   Of course I picked up Rolling Stone first to read about Melissa McCarthy, the break-out star of “Bridesmaids.” And that got me thinking.

In “Bridesmaids,” McCarthy was the antithesis of a hot Hollywood babe. But her character was immune to what others thought of her.  She was supremely confident, and in the end, she landed the guy she wanted.  So maybe I shouldn’t worry that the packaging of “management reform” isn’t seductive enough, at first glance, to make the QDDR II short list.  Maybe it has a shot after all.  All joking aside, I really hope it does because the future of the world’s poorest people depends on it.

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

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

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

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

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

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

Why It’s Taking So Long

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

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

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

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

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

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

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

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

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

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

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

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

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

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