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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.

Incentivizing Transparency

Wednesday, September 24th, 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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For those of us who seek to improve development effectiveness, the rationale for transparency over foreign assistance spending is obvious.  Knowing what is spent, where and how it is used, and what is achieved is essential for ensuring that governments deliver on their promises – both here in the United States and in developing countries.  Quality data that is timely, comprehensive, accessible and usable is the currency of democratic accountability.

But for those who produce and collect the data, releasing it does not always seem to carry significant benefits.  If knowledge is power, then insider knowledge is concentrated power, and the rewards for sharing it may be less apparent.

To clarify the advantages of transparency for those who are not already convinced of its value, MFAN’s Accountability Working Group has produced a one-pager that explains the key reasons why transparency is important:

  • It improves coordination among U.S. agencies and international donors.
  • It enables partner governments to plan effectively.
  • It reduces administrative burdens and helps meet reporting requirements.
  • It builds stronger, more resilient, and more capable states.
  • It harnesses information that can be used to improve policies, services, and outcomes.

These are just a few of the many reasons why releasing data to the public, and making it as reliable and useful as possible, serves our larger foreign policy and development goals.  But those goals can only be met if those of us in civil society actually use the data to inform our programs, our analysis, and our advocacy.  Thus we offer these recommendations for the larger development community:

1) EXPLORE.  Set aside time to go to www.foreignassistance.gov and www.iatiregistry.org.  Prepare some questions that you’d like to have answered and see what you can find out.

2) SHARE.  It’s shocking how many people and organizations that could benefit from this information don’t even know it exists, here in Washington as well as across the United States and around the world.  Do your part by spreading the word.

3) TRAIN.  For researchers and advocates in the United States and developing countries alike, demonstrations and trainings can be very empowering and can overcome initial anxiety and intimidation about using new tools and technology.

4) PUSH.  Don’t just let the data reside on the internet as a passive resource.  Take the time to extract useful information and analyze, reframe, and repackage it to meet the needs of specific stakeholder communities.  Distribute it in formats that are widely accessible.

5) CREDIT.  Publicly cite the Dashboard and IATI when you use their data for blog posts, articles, research reports, and media stories.  Those who toil at collecting, reviewing and disseminating the data need to know that their hard work has not been in vain.

6) RESPOND.  The Dashboard team at the Department of State openly solicits feedback on the quality, format, and content of the data.  Let them know what works well and what doesn’t at http://www.foreignassistance.gov/web/Contact.aspx.

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!