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The 2013 Aid Transparency Index: MCC Tops The List, But Room For Improvement In U.S. Government

Thursday, October 31st, 2013
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See below for a guest post from Melissa Kaplan, advocacy manager for aid reform and effectiveness at InterAction. Kaplan writes about the findings from the 2013 Aid Transparency Index, which was released last week. This post originally appeared on InterAction’s website.

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Aid Transparency Index-MCCThe 2013 Aid Transparency Index released this month by Publish What You Fund had good news for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), but not as rosy news for other U.S. agencies.

The MCC—a U.S. foreign assistance agency fighting global poverty—tops this year’s Aid Transparency Index. The index evaluates dozens of aid donors from around the globe on their transparency efforts. MCC snagged the no. 1 spot with an overall rating of 89 percent (out of 100), putting it at the top of the relatively small category of donors rated “very good” on aid transparency. The GAVI Alliance, the UK Department for International Development, and the United Nations Development Program were the other groups that landed in this category.

The report praised the MCC’s progress on transparency, and congratulated the agency for publishing high-quality information in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an initiative working to make information about spending on development easier to access, understand, and use. It also pointed out that all of the MCC’s current Compacts and Threshold Programs are published in IATI XML on MCC’s website, and the information on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard includes planning, obligation, and spending data.

“(MCC) is amongst the biggest improvers in the 2013 Index and is the first U.S. agency to enter the top three,” the report states.

Other U.S. agencies that handle foreign assistance did not fare quite as well in the index. USAID earned a “fair” score of 44 percent, coming in at number 22 out of 67 agencies, while the Department of Defense fell into the “poor” category, with a number 27 ranking and a score of 33 percent. The State Department ranked even worse than DOD with a number 40 ranking and a score of 22 percent. However, it is worth noting that these U.S. agencies have all improved from the 2012 Aid Transparency Index in their overall rankings on the list.

At an event co-hosted by the Brookings Institution and Oxfam launching the Aid Transparency Index Report, David Hall-Matthews, Managing Director of Publish What You Fund, noted that there is still plenty of room for improvement overall among aid donors in terms of transparency, given that the average agency score in the index was only 32.6 percent. He emphasized that it’s not just the quantity but also the quality of data being published that is important.

The broad indicators Publish What You Fund used in its 2013 report methodology were:

  • Commitment to aid transparency—10 percent weight: This measures the extent to which organizations have shown overall commitment to making their aid transparent.
  • Publication at organization level—25 percent weight: This category reflects the availability of general planning and financial information.
  • Publication at activity level—65 percent weight: This category captures the extent to which organizations make available aid information pertaining to specific in-country project activities.

Within these categories, there were 39 more specific indicators used to assess donors’ success, or lack thereof, in sharing data in a transparent manner. Agencies got higher scores for timely information available in an easily usable format (in other words, more credit was given for data published in IATI XML format than for Excel spreadsheets, which in turn get better marks than website or PDF formats).

The report makes three general recommendations:

  • All development actors need to publish more information to IATI. It should be published consistently, cover all relevant IATI fields, and include information beyond financial data.
  • Publishers need to improve their data quality to make it more useful. It needs to be timely, and conform to IATI standard so it can be compared between organizations.
  • Everyone can benefit from using IATI data.

For details, see information on the full Aid Transparency Index 2013 report.

MCC certainly deserves kudos for its excellent showing in this year’s index, and we hope its commendable commitment to transparency will continue. InterAction would also like to see other U.S. foreign assistance agencies take up the challenge to provide more transparent and useful data to the public. While more information being published to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard (particularly by USAID) in recent months is a welcome development, we would still like to see this data be made available in as accessible and user friendly a format as possible. We hope that the 2013 Aid Transparency Report will encourage the administration to keep aid transparency as a priority with an eye on making USAID and the Department of Defense the most improved agencies in the world in next year’s Aid Transparency Index.

 

MCC Named Most Transparent Donor in 2013 Aid Transparency Index

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

2013 ATI Ranking

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

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

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

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

Why Congress Should Care About the International Aid Transparency Initiative

Thursday, April 18th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from MFAN co-chair and Brookings senior fellow George Ingram on how the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Foreign Assistance Dashboard are the tools Congress has been looking for to prove the value of U.S. foreign assistance programs. This post originally appeared on the Brookings blog

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As the long-dreaded sequestration process begins to set in, U.S. government programs that have already been feeling the heat of budget pressures are now starting to feel the pinch. Across all agencies and departments, there has never been such heightened vigilance to determine the quality, value, and effectiveness of taxpayer-funded programs in order to save them from landing on the proverbial chopping block. U.S. foreign assistance is no exception, and in fact, is likely to be a popular target despite notable progress over the past decade in how aid is delivered.

One basic tool to help circumvent arbitrary and needless cuts is to make information related to foreign assistance transparent, accessible and comparable with the activities of other international donors. Congress has the important responsibility of choosing how much to allocate for activities that seek to lift millions out of extreme poverty, fight disease, spur growth and restore human dignity. In this challenging budget environment, that responsibility is of even higher consequence, with the potential to affect lives all around the world, either for the better or worse. But to make informed decisions, Congress needs to have at its disposal comprehensive, reliable data that is timely and up-to-date.

The Foreign Assistance Dashboard— a public website launched a little over two years ago by the Obama administration to examine this data— demonstrates a strong commitment to aid transparency. However, compliance from agencies involved in U.S. foreign assistance has been slow; the site still only has partial information (budget plans, obligations and expenditures) for a couple of agencies (USAID and Millennium Challenge Corporation) and just planning data for the State Department, leaving out more than a dozen others as well as critical program and project data that lie beneath the aid-flow surface.

The U.S. made another major commitment to the transparency agenda at the 2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, by joining the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Meeting the IATI commitments, particularly the publication of comprehensive and timely foreign assistance information, is incomplete and moving slowly.

Congress needs to understand that the dashboard and IATI are the tools it has been searching for. Members continuously complain about the opaqueness of foreign assistance – how much assistance is the U.S. providing, to what countries, for what purposes, in cooperation with whom, to what effect? Where is the information to explain to constituents how their tax dollars are being spent? Together the dashboard and IATI will provide this information.

Even more importantly, while there are varying opinions over the best uses and purposes for foreign assistance, members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, are united in caring that foreign assistance dollars are used well – that tax dollars are not wasted and that the assistance does help lift individuals and countries from poverty and promote U.S. foreign policy interests.

IATI is a critical tool in contributing to the effective use of foreign assistance funds – and not just government provided assistance, but also that which is provided by private entities such as NGOs, foundations and corporations. It is currently the only place for comparable aid information. While the dashboard is a valuable domestic resource, IATI allows a wide range of stakeholders to know what the U.S. government is doing alongside what others are doing. This is the full aid picture and what recipients want to know on the ground.

As of April 2013, 39 government and multilateral donors, and over 100 private organizations, have committed to IATI. When fully operative and with timely and comprehensive data from all donors, we will have the ability through one website to find all donor activity in a particular sector and a particular locale in a country – a virtual one-stop-data-shop for foreign assistance. So how will this improve aid effectiveness?

Let’s say you are: (1) USAID contemplating investing scarce assistance funds in education in region X of country Y; (2) a congressional staffer whose boss has asked whether donors are helping to expand education opportunities in that region; (3) an NGO contemplating working in that region; (4) a finance ministry budget expert in country Y trying to figure out which school districts are in the greatest need of resources in the next fiscal year. IATI will provide the data to help answer these questions.

Through IATI, USAID will know which other donors are engaged in the region, at what level of funding, with what specific focus, and with whom it might coordinate. The congressional staffer can tell his member what donors and at what level education is being assisted. The NGO can tell if this region is overrun by its sister organizations or ignored and with whom it might partner. The ministry budget expert can better allocate scarce resources and query the education ministry staff as to whether it is integrating donor activity into national education plans.

The administration is to be commended for taking the leading in bringing U.S. assistance into the age of data transparency. It is now time for Congress to become involved, by supporting the administration but also by pushing for more robust implementation. Congressman Ted Poe does this in his bill, the “Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act”, which passed the House in the waning days of the last Congress but was held up in the Senate. It is expected that he will soon reintroduce the bill. Congress should act swiftly to enact it into law and recommend that IATI be the standard by which all agencies in the aid space publish their data.

 

From day one: Transparency at the heart

Monday, April 8th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from Ben Leo, ONE’s global policy director, and Lauren Pfeifer, ONE’s policy associate on the Transparency and Accountability Team.

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On President Obama’s first day in office, he signed an executive order that called for open, transparent government.

The order is based on the principles that openness should be the default position of the US Government, citizens should be given more opportunities to participate in and collaborate with the US Government, and the data the US government collects is a national asset that should be accessible to its citizens.

Photo credit: The White House

Photo credit: The White House

That the order was signed on Day 1 was a symbolic gesture, of course, but its impetus was, I believe, the President’s belief that openness and access can generate a level of trust through accountability that no amount of rhetoric and reassurance can replicate. It is a testament to his desire to change the view that our government is a secretive bureaucratic system, one difficult to hold to account.

The President’s commitment to open and accountable government isn’t limited to our own borders. The Obama administration has also taken concrete action to increase the transparency of our foreign assistance, a potentially game-changing step. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave a keynote speech at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, late 2011, in which she announced that the US would sign the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the global standard of aid transparency. As the largest donor of development assistance, transparent US programs have the potential to be transformative, giving developing nations a more complete picture of their revenue streams.

But plans released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that outline how the US will implement IATI’s aid transparency requirements – which include reporting project data to an open machine-readable database – show the government may be standing in its own way. The plans show a “whole of government” approach which – while beneficial at the political level – doesn’t take into account the factors that affect the ease of implementation. Certain agencies are ready (and more relevant) to begin reporting to IATI, and each of the 10 plus US agencies that currently disburse development assistance have their own systems, and as such, different capacity for converting the data into IATI’s format. Agencies, such as USAID and the MCC, should each have their own plans for how best to report to IATI. This would allow them to be tailored to their various systems and ensure that information is as specific as possible. Useful aid transparency information illuminates projects and transactions at the local level. This project-level information’s specificity is critical. OMB’s plans are lacking in other areas. Geo-coding of data and reporting results are called “supplemental” and left optional. Lastly, the most obvious information is perhaps the least likely to be available. US agencies are only required to publish 1-year forward-looking budget information, rather than the suggested 3 to 5-year forward-looking information that would enable recipient governments to plan ahead.

In order to maintain the momentum that was so inspiring at the start of the President’s first term, his administration should encourage agencies to accelerate the timeline outlined by OMB’s implementation schedule – empowering those who lead our development agencies to publish their agency’s data in IATI format on their websites as soon as they can. This would encourage agencies to be ambitious and speed up implementation, while providing useful data to developing countries.

The principles the President championed the first day of his Presidency are reflected in the reform and evaluation processes undertaken by key US development agencies – new and better data enables citizens to hold their governments to account, and transparency helps to make programs more efficient. But the commitments the US has made to aid transparency are stifled by the approach it has chosen to meet them. US development agencies need to be encouraged to publish what they can, as soon as they can. Perhaps they can take the President’s advice, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” This IATI data is transformative, and will provide a fuller picture to countries who receive sometimes unpredictable assistance from many different countries. The administration should provide clear and strong encouragement to make transparent, as soon we can, the data that has the potential to accelerate progress in the fight against poverty.

Want to know more? Read the US Aid Transparency Report Card.

 

USAID Administrator Should be Given Seat on NSC

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013
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Last week, Foreign Policy’s “Best Defense” blog had a guest post from Major Jaron Wharton, U.S. Army. In the piece, Maj. Wharton makes a compelling case for the USAID Administrator to be granted a seat on the National Security Council given the increased role development plays in our national security. MFAN has long held the position that the USAID Administrator should hold a seat on the National Security Council, especially with the emphasis on smart power seen during the Obama Administration. Read the full piece here and see key excerpts below:

“Because we are living in times that require a fully integrated national security approach, the USAID administrator should become the president’s principal advisor for development and assistance (akin to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff role and associated linkage to the secretary of defense, but concomitant to the secretary of state) and a permanent member on the National Security Council. This elevated position will provide the president with unfettered development advice, while codifying the position that development is on par with defense and diplomacy. Maintaining USAID’s intimate relationship with State recognizes the inherent ties of development assistance to foreign policy.”

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“USAID should take internal steps to reinforce its relevance and further professionalize its engagement in the national security apparatus. However, as in Goldwater-Nichols, where the ramifications for the professionalization of the Joint Staff were extreme, USAID is already fully-capable of the increased level of responsibility. There is no longer a dichotomy within USAID between those focused on altruistic development and assistance and those who understand the necessity, practicality, and Hill-emphasized need for more targeted work to support national security objectives.

Indeed, the development portfolio is now facing critical challenges and is at significantly increased risk given growing fiscal constraints. Despite being elevated by the Global Development Policy to be on par with defense and diplomacy, elements of any effort by the agency to demonstrate true relevancy in national security must include improved and sustained engagement in the NSS. This inherently makes the case USAID’s activities are considered in the national interest. Elevation of the administrator as a permanent member on the NSC provides an additional forcing function on the broader USG to recognize this point. At a minimum, the USAID administrator should be elevated and maintain his presence at the principals’ committee level beyond an “informal member as appropriate.”