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Building aid transparency: more data, better data

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund on June 13, 2014.

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There are two new agencies publishing information to the foreign assistance dashboard: the State Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is good news.

But the question remains: Is more data always better, and for whom? Is the exercise of publishing volumes of data to the dashboard just a routine exercise, or a deliberate effort to improve the information available for more effective aid and better development outcomes?

A decade ago, data was the private domain of statisticians, economists, mathematicians, engineers, demographers, and others with a technical bent. The closest it got to policy was on the political side—pollsters advising candidates and politicians configuring legislative districts to their advantage.

Today data is discussed not just in academic and limited policy circles, but in high level international fora. The “data revolution” was highlighted in the U.N. Panel of Eminent Persons as part of the post 2015 agenda. Open government and aid transparency are widely discussed, a substantial shift from the days when discussing corruption in development meetings was taboo.

The U.S. government has been part of this change. It co-founded the Open Government Partnership in 2010, launched the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard to make public all U.S. foreign assistance data, and in 2011 committed to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Strong as the U.S. policy commitment on aid data transparency has been, implementation has been slow.

To be fair, it must be acknowledged that aid data transparency—putting data and information on assistance into the public realm—is a concept that is easy to understand but complicated to implement. What data? In what form? For what user? How best presented?  And the questions go on.

A central issue in aid transparency is whether the effort is worthwhile—whether the data is useful to users.  And usability is driven by the amount and quality of the data, how it can be accessed and viewed (visualization), and the needs of the particular user.

The Diversity of Aid Data Platforms

There are various platforms (websites) being built to house and visualize data on assistance. Two colleagues at Brookings and I have been looking at some of the principal aid data websites. What comes through is that no single site meets the needs of all users. And that is as it should be.

 aid data summary table

 [See full presentation, which is intended to start a conversation and encourage further analysis.]

Some platforms are global in presenting data for many or all donors, such as the OECD Creditor Reporting System (CRS) and AidData; others are donor specific (U.S. Foreign Assistance DashboardDFID Development Tracker, and the Dutch OpenAidNL); and some aid recipients are creating systems to track data into their countries.

Some platforms are strong in providing the non-technical, macro-perspective user with a quick overview of assistance statistics, while others allow downloading raw data for the technical person who knows how to work data and needs to perform detailed analysis. The data platforms should clearly indicate their core functions and intended audiences. Many of the sites use a single source for the data intake, the IATI Registry, which is where one can find the raw, structured data. IATI is the only place to find comparable aid information from all donors. IATI simply provides the data for different uses and users.

A second finding is that despite the global commitment in principle, there is a paucity of good, valuable data.  The CRS data is comprehensive but detailed information often is two years old, making it ideal for statistical studies and analysis but of little use for in-country planning or budget allocation. Several donors have put up their own sites, but they provide data only for that donor, such as the U.S. Dashboard.

Governments responsible for 86 percent of official development assistance have committed to IATI, but the data is only slowly entering the IATI registry.  A few donor agencies, such as the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), have fully embraced IATI. DFID not only has published data to the registry but has adopted the IATI schema for its own Development Tracker and is using the data to manage its programs.

The U.S. record is mixed. The newest publication is from the State Department, which includes information from the bureaus and offices implementing foreign assistance funding. The data published is a step forward and State’s progress is welcomed, but the quality of the data remains a challenge to be addressed. Two weeks ago, five of the nine USDA agencies implementing foreign assistance programs published planning, obligated, spent, and transaction data to the Dashboard. Similarly, this is a positive development and USDA’s data is a useful addition to the foreign assistance full picture.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has published all of its data in IATI XML format and has led the way with comprehensive, high quality, disaggregated information. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Technical Assistance published its data in XML in 2013, but this file has not yet been updated. Other U.S. government agencies are far behind: USAID has loaded a lot of data but it is financial information that is not connected to specific projects; the Defense Department is missing its transaction data; and totally missing is data from PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and other agencies.

Balancing Aid Data vs. Visualization

There is a tension in the data arena on priorities—more data or better visualization?  It is not a chicken-and-egg issue, as either the chicken or the egg must come first, we just aren’t sure which. But data and visualization should evolve together—one cannot create visualizations without data, and most of us cannot analyze or understand reams of spreadsheets with numbers unless they are aggregated into nice “pictures.”

I learned a long time ago that demand for data does not exist in a vacuum. The demand for more and better data is created by demonstrating the knowledge that can be found in data through graphs and charts that are easy to interpret. Show a policymaker new knowledge through a graph, and she will begin to understand the value of data and want more. The visualization should be easily interpreted by the user, it should answer the users’ questions and concerns and it should be tailored to his needs.

That said, to determine the proper focus—the proper balance—for U.S. government data transparency efforts, it is necessary to ask what is the comparative advantage of government. In this arena, it clearly is providing the data and maintaining the high quality of the supply. U.S. government agencies have the data and only they can provide it to the Dashboard and the IATI registry.

In addition, I think we can all agree that it is the private sector (companies, NGOs, academia) that has proved its innovative ability in visualizing data. So, the principal U.S. government effort should be on providing comprehensive, high quality, timely data, along with basic visualization that presents the data in simple, understandable formats. The raw data must be accessible to those who can manipulate the data. The government should encourage others—third parties and infomediaries—to create the exciting and varied visualization, possibly even offering an “X prize” for particularly creative and usable visualizations that respond to the needs of users.

Ensuring Comprehensive & Quality Data

The data and the platforms that present it will be widely used only when the data is complete—comprehensive, timely, comparable, searchable, easy to access and also shared and promoted. Only then will data be useful for sophisticated analysis and in-depth research, or to answer simple questions such as how much is being spent in a specific village for education or health. For that to happen, agencies must fully comply with their commitment to IATI, the only databank that when fully invested with data will be truly global and timely.

U.S. agencies are facing two deadlines. Most immediately is the 2014 Publish What You Fund Aid Transparency Index, with June 30th as the closing date for collecting data for the assessment. MCC scored first overall in the 2013 ATI, an accomplishment that rewarded strong management leadership and technical capacity. That ranking in the new index is at risk as the MCC’s complete, XML IATI-formatted data has inextricably 10 months later not yet moved from the Dashboard to the IATI registry. The new and current data is due to be published sometime this month. We all would like to see other U.S. agencies do well and are hoping that USAID and the Department of State, which together are responsible for about 75 percent of U.S. assistance dollars, are working to meet that June 30th date by publishing data that is comprehensive and of high quality.

Why US Interests Include the IATI

More importantly, it is only 18 months before the due date on the U.S. commitment to be fully compliant with IATI. In over 3 years the U.S. has made only moderate progress toward that goal. What is needed is a clear path forward—a detailed, costed management plan to meet that commitment. To do that requires concerted political will and leadership, which will come only if there is an understanding that a robust IATI data registry is in the US interest.

There is no better demonstration of that interest than Haiti. Aid coordination is nice in theory and can work at the level of general policy, but it is impossible when there are 20 or 50 donor agencies, 10-20 international organizations, and hundreds of NGOs implementing projects in a country. How do you coordinate thousands of projects? You don’t! But what you can do is have a common registry so that when a donor or an NGO decides to undertake an activity it can see who else is putting what funds for what purpose in a particular region of the country. So the Ministry of Finance knows what aid money is coming into the country, in what sectors and regions, and therefore can better allocate its own resources and engage donors in an informed conversation on priorities and where to allocate resources.

The American government and the American people want our assistance to be effective: to be effective we must allocate aid smartly, which requires knowing the full range of resources and activities that are present in a sector and region. To end with a notion expressed by MCC Vice President Sheila Herrling at the recent launch of the new Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network policy paper, The Way Forward:“What $50 billion-a-year company would not want good data to inform its operations!”

Transparency and Foreign Assistance: Fulfilling U.S. Commitments

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sally Paxton, U.S. Representative for Publish What You Fund.

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Yesterday, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network announced their new policy agenda, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond. One of the pillars of the new policy is accountability and transparency.

I was asked to discuss how the U.S. can best use IATI and the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to keep its transparency commitments. So, as the U.S. continues its work, here are my top five recommendations for how to best achieve our aid transparency goals:

1. Publish high quality data, then use it often. The top priority must be publication of high quality data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), complete with the “value added” fields such as geocoding, results and forward spending. Get one set of really good data, then use it over and over. Use it to meet our Busan commitments. Use it to report to Congress. Use it for the Dashboard. Encourage agencies to use it for their own internal data management and to inform their decision-making. One good set of data can serve a multitude of purposes. The Dutch and Swedish government have fully adopted the “publish once and use often” approach. We should too.

2. Share our data with the world. Data must be published to the IATI registry without delay and in its entirety. We don’t want just the U.S. to use our own data – we want the world to have access and to have every platform that is built using IATI data to include U.S. foreign assistance data. Otherwise, the significant role of the U.S. in foreign assistance is either misled or undervalued.

3. The U.S. should promote the use of IATI. In additional to using it internally – it can be a great management tool – the U.S. should talk with our partner countries to understand what they need to make their own decisions and then seek to prioritize that data. If, for example, geocoded information is valuable and in demand, then we should prioritize the publication of geocoded data.

4. Priorities for the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. We support the Dashboard’s current effort to review its own functionality and improve its visualizations. But the first priority has to be in automating the publication of quality, timely and comprehensive aid data from all agencies administering foreign assistance. Once there is a critical mass of quality data, the Dashboard should tackle how users can maximize the site. And as it works through this review, we have suggested that it should also look at the question of who is its intended user – the U.S. or all users globally? Different users need different portals, depending on the information they seek.

5. Accelerate Progress! Right now, the U.S. is behind in the timetable to meet its IATI commitments. One way to reset our progress is for agencies involved in foreign assistance – particularly State and USAID, which account for approximately 74% of our foreign aid – to make and publish a costed, management plan that lays out the blueprint to full IATI implementation. Such a plan would identify the resources, benchmarks and timetables that put us on a realistic path to the end of 2015. Finally, in both making and implementing this plan, it is essential that policy and technical leaders in an agency work together – a marriage, if you will, that keeps both of these important functions working together. MCC – which finished first in our Index last year – is proof of this point.

We know that, in just a few short years, there has been remarkable global progress on aid transparency. But we are not there yet. In the U.S., there have been a number of positive steps, starting with President Obama’s memorandum on open government and transparency, signed on his first day in office. The launching of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard in 2010 was a welcome announcement, as was Secretary Clinton’s 2011 commitment to IATI in Busan. Likewise, there have been a number of Administration policy pronouncements, all with the aim of improving our reporting, publishing and transparency of aid data.

These steps forward are not only welcomed but very much needed. But they are not enough. Why?

  • Because both globally and in the U.S., the state of aid information is still outdated, piecemeal and can’t be compared across donors.

o   We don’t know, with any detail, what we are spending and with what results;

o   We have little information about what other donors are spending – and with what results;

o   And recipient countries – where we want and expect that they will some day become self sufficient – often have little idea what donors are spending, let alone know what they plan to spend in the future.

  • Thus, without timely, quality, comparable and accessible aid information, the ability to make informed decisions about our foreign assistance is almost accidental.

In IATI, we have a solution to those problems, which is why people like me advocate so much for it. But it’s not just me – IATI has a critical mass of political commitment: donors representing 86% of ODF have agreed to publish their aid data to the Standard. The U.S. has made the political decision. Now it must be among the donors who follow through on that commitment.

Every year, Publish What You Fund does a global assessment of aid transparency among the biggest donors in the world. The picture so far has been mixed, both within the U.S. and globally. We will publish our Aid Transparency Index again this October. We hope to see good progress and improved transparency by all U.S. agencies – we are the biggest single donor in the world and we should be the leading donor on transparency. We can’t afford not to.

 

Local Voices and Resources Are the Ultimate Answer in the Fight Against Poverty

Friday, April 18th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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This week, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) released a policy paper – The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond – urging the U.S. Government to work more closely than ever before with our partner countries and their citizens to improve the way in which our aid dollars are planned and spent. The paper highlights MFAN’s new agenda and makes clear why country ownership and accountability are powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars that will make U.S. aid more effective in helping leaders and citizens in developing countries drive decisions about their own development.

U.S. foreign aid to developing countries is vital in the effort to save lives, fight famine, put kids in schools, and respond to disasters. But, our help will be even more impactful and lasting if designed and implemented in true partnership with developing country governments and citizens, in ways that strengthen their own efforts, and that they can build on. A frank conversation between our government and the people we want to help is necessary to address the inefficiencies in our aid system that often delivers aid piecemeal and is not integrated with local efforts.

Save the Children is a leading voice in MFAN, driven by the belief that U.S. foreign assistance needs to focus on fostering local partnerships and creating relationships of mutual accountability. In countries where we operate, Save the Children works in partnership with national and local governments and communities on programs that we know are working for children and that are helping to bring about more of their government’s investment in the long run. In Nepal, we have joined forces with district governments, each providing half of the funding needed to create a Child Endowment Fund that allows caregivers of vulnerable children to receive consistent support.

In addition, we have just launched a pilot program in multiple countries to identify and support local advocates for children in their efforts to secure a fairer share of public resources from their governments for the care, protection and development of their children. Foreign aid is certainly helping achieve these outcomes, but the foundation for continued care for these children lies in our partner countries’ own commitments to the cause. This commitment can be demonstrated in effective, child-focused policies and programs, and growing shares of public funding for childhood care and development.

The U.S. Government is already committed to engaging citizens and governments in developing countries to inform the planning and delivery of our aid programs. It is in America’s own interest to ensure that our aid dollars are integrated with the efforts of these governments and local citizens, and that we’re helping to prepare them for a day when foreign aid is no longer needed. MFAN and its members, including Save the Children, want to see this commitment translated into greater action, and stand ready to help the Obama Administration put local institutions in the driver’s seat and equip them to bring about a permanent end to extreme poverty for children and families across the world.

U.S. Pace on Aid Transparency Won’t Cut it for 2015 Deadline

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
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Development leaders from around the globe will gather in Mexico City next week for the first high-level meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. The Global Partnership was established at the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan in 2011 and brings together a wide range of development actors working towards more effective, sustainable, and impactful development results. Today, 161 countries and 54 organizations have endorsed the Global Partnership Principles, including the United States.

Next week’s meeting offers up a chance to evaluate donors’ progress on their commitments to the Principles, including one focused on transparency requiring that donors publish all aid data to a common, open standard by December 2015. The U.S. endorsement of the Global Partnership Principles goes hand in hand with the commitment made by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), also announced at Busan.

MFAN has joined with many other individuals and organizations in an effort spearheaded by Publish What You Fund to call on USAID Administrator Raj Shah and Secretary of State John Kerry to increase aid transparency efforts ahead of the GPEDC meeting. The supporting individuals and organizations have sent letters to Administrator Shah and Secretary Kerry outlining key recommendations, including:

  • Accelerate efforts to publish timely, comprehensive and forward-looking data on all development flows in accordance with IATI and improve the quality of published data;
  • Ensure information on development cooperation is compatible and aligned with partner countries’ budgets and systems;
  • Support specific actions to improve access, dissemination and use of this data by all stakeholders at country level.

With 2015 just around the corner, the U.S. needs to pick up the pace on publishing timely, comprehensive, and forward-looking data if it is to meet its important commitment to aid transparency. We hope this gathering will provide a much-needed kick-start to that process.

5 things the US government is doing to make foreign assistance more effective

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Jennifer Lentfer, Senior Writer on the Aid Effectiveness Team at Oxfam America. Lentfer highlights the aid effectiveness principles from Oxfam’s newly released third-edition Foreign Aid 101 report.

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#1 – AFFIRMING AID’S PURPOSE

President Barack Obama issued the US government’s first ever US Global Development Policy in September 2010. The policy clarifies that the primary purpose of US development aid is to pursue broad-based economic growth as the means to fight global poverty.

The US Global Development Policy also offers a clear mandate for country ownership—that is, leadership by citizens and responsible governments in poor countries—is how the US government will support development. The US has been moving in this direction since the George W. Bush administration.

ForeignAID-shareGraphics-quote

#2 – MODERNIZING USAID

USAID Forward is a flagship reform agenda designed to make USAID more transparent, effective, and accountable to US taxpayers and to people overseas.

The issue: USAID Forward addresses outdated procurement policies that perpetuate a cycle of aid dependence, rebuilding staff technical capacity, the reduction of overhead costs associated with contracting by 12–15 percent, the need for rigorous program feedback and evaluation, and finally, the role of innovation, science, and technology throughout USAID’s programs. At the heart of this reform process is acknowledging the leading role that local people and institutions have in transforming their countries.

The results: Since USAID Forward began, USAID has increased the amount of direct support to governments and to citizens and other leaders and problems solvers in host countries by almost 50 percent. In fiscal year 2010, only 9.7 percent of USAID mission funding was awarded directly to host country government agencies, private-sector firms, and local NGOs. In 2013, 14.3 percent of mission funds were awarded directly to these local institutions, which is halfway toward USAID’s goal of 30 percent by fiscal year 2015.

#3 – MAKING US FOREIGN AID MORE TRANSPARENT

The issue: Basic information about where, how much, and for what the US government provides aid has historically been difficult for people to access—both for American taxpayers and for the people in poor countries we are trying to assist. But when the US government shares high-quality, comprehensive, and timely information about our aid investments, it helps:

  • Partners plan better projects;
  • Watchdogs keep an eye on the money; and
  • Citizens both in the US and in partner countries make sure that aid delivers results.

The results: The US government is beginning to disclose basic aid data, as well as make that data more useful to citizens. In 2010, the US unveiled a public website, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which provides a view of US aid across agencies and countries. President Obama has mandated publishing machine-readable data on US aid via executive orders and through public, international commitments like the Open Government Partnership. There have also been bipartisan efforts in both houses of Congress to require more transparency from US aid agencies via legislation.

In 2011, the US joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a global agreement by donors to share information about foreign aid in an easy-to-use manner. Since joining IATI, US rankings in the Aid Transparency Index have risen across the board, with the MCC ranking number one in 2013.

ForeignAID-shareGraphics-Martha

#4 – DEVELOPING NEW MODELS OF PROVIDING AID

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a United States foreign aid agency that is applying a new philosophy towards foreign aid. Introduced by President George W. Bush and established by Congress in 2004, the MCC model requires countries to meet eligibility criteria in three areas: good governance, economic freedom, and investments in people. In return, the MCC provides large, five-year grants (“compacts”) toward development projects that are identified along with representatives from the host country government, private sector, and civil society and that are assessed on the basis of expected economic returns and other technical criteria.

From 2004-2013, the MCC signed compacts with 24 countries and committed over $9.3 billion in aid. Lesotho is an example of a country that took steps to improve economic freedom to become eligible for an MCC partnership by passing a law in 2006 that allowed married women to own property for the first time.

#5 – TACKLING GLOBAL CHALLENGES THROUGH LOCAL INSTITUTIONS

FEED THE FUTURE

The issue: About three-fourths of the world’s poorest people—1.4 billion women, children, and men—live in rural areas, where most of them depend on farming and related activities for their livelihood.

In recent years, increasing food prices around the globe have put pressure on many poor households. In response to these recurring food crises, the Obama administration in 2010 launched the Feed the Future initiative, which aims to help small farmers grow more food and grow their incomes. Feed the Future is designed to deliver aid for agricultural development and food security based on a country’s own assessment of needs and priorities. Feed the Future is also intended to focus on results and leverage US investments in local research and training on farming methods, irrigation, and nutrition for maximum outcomes.

The results: In 2012, almost 9.4 million acres—a land area nearly double that of New Jersey—came under improved cultivation and management practices due to Feed the Future investments, supporting seven million food producers. In Senegal for example, the use of conservation farming techniques resulted in at least a 20 percent increase in yields of maize, millet, and sorghum from 2011 to 2012.

ForeignAID-shareGraphics-Manuel

THE US PRESIDENT’S EMERGENCY PLAN FOR AIDS RELIEF (PEPFAR)

The issue: An estimated 35 million people were living with HIV around the world in 2012. The persistent burden associated with communicable diseases undermines efforts to reduce poverty, prevent hunger, and preserve human potential. Launched in 2003, PEPFAR helps expand access to prevention, care, and treatment by funding programs that are country-owned and country-driven, emphasizing a “whole of government” response to scaling-up proven interventions, which are increasingly financed by partner countries.

The results: PEPFAR has helped contributed to historic declines in AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections. Going forward, PEPFAR is addressing the continuing challenges of strengthening health systems in developing nations so countries ultimately care for and improve the health of their own people, better protecting the world from global disease outbreaks.