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Archive for the ‘USAID’ Category

State of the Union 2015: What “Smart Development” Means for Reform as the Clock Winds Down

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015
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See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

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On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his next-to-last State of the Union address in which he laid out an ambitious, and largely domestic, agenda for his last two years of office. While the foreign policy pieces of the address were more concerned with defense (mostly) and diplomacy (occasionally), we were pleased to hear the President highlight the importance of development and ending extreme poverty.

In discussing the Ebola crisis, which began spreading through West Africa this time last year, President Obama noted that we need to be investing “in smart development” and building “a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics.” Countries hardest hit by Ebola are those lacking the domestic health systems to effectively deal with the disease — a problem that could be mitigated by focusing more resources on strengthening local systems and broadening health services.

President Obama also made the case for acting on climate change or we risk increasing “massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.” This need to address climate change and integrate climate resilience into our development work has been echoed by the discussions around the Post-2015 agenda and is likely to be a key theme in the forthcoming Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

We thank President Obama for pointing to the need for smarter, more effective development, and recognize that this administration has implemented a number of important reforms. Efforts like USAID Forward and the Local Solutions initiative are helping to ensure that we are looking for locally led solutions to development problems. The State Department and USAID have established and implemented evaluation policies to improve agency M&E practices. USAID’s reconstituted policy shop encourages learning. PEPFAR and the MCC have prioritized open data and transparency to drive better development programs.

We call on the administration to institutionalize these reforms so that their benefits are sustained. And we ask that commitments made with regard to transparency and country ownership are met. Above all, we call on the President to quickly appoint a capable development leader as USAID administrator in order to sustain and further these gains before he leaves office.

This Administration has made strides to change the narrative on U.S. foreign assistance, but as President Obama said last night, “the job is not yet done.” We look forward to working with the Administration over these final two years to institutionalize this important progress.

Transforming U.S. Foreign Aid through Country Ownership

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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Throughout my life, and particularly in my work with Save the Children, I have seen examples of where aid has made a powerful difference in helping to transform people’s lives; and I’ve seen it fail.

When it works, whether it comes in the form of health, nutrition, or humanitarian projects that prevent thousands of deaths or in education that provides children the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, aid can play a crucial role in meeting the needs of billions of children and families around the globe and literally changing the future.

And when it fails, its impacts range from insignificant to actually leaving communities worse off in a range of ways.

Because of this, an important part of our advocacy at Save the Children is directed at improving the way aid is delivered to maximize its positive impact.  Research has shown time and time again that foreign assistance is more effective and sustainable when those local governments and communities on the receiving end have a strong voice in deciding and developing the relevant projects, using their vast local knowledge and skills.   When developing countries are in the driver’s seat and leading the design, implementation, and management of development activities we are closer to achieving country ownership.

Country ownership has become an increasingly important aspect of U.S. development projects.  In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched USAID Forward, a set of policy reforms, to strengthen the agency and restructure its approach to aid.  The Local Solutions initiative is a key aspect of USAID Forward that focuses on bolstering local capacity, promoting country ownership, and increasing sustainability of program results.  The initiative has the potential to transform the way aid is administered, implemented, and ultimately the effects it has on millions of lives in developing countries.

However, the initiative currently uses a single indicator to track progress – percentage of USAID Mission funds provided directly to local institutions.  This single measure is insufficient to evaluate such a multi-faceted effort.

Save the Children has recently released a report entitled, Tracking USAID’s Efforts on the Local Solutions Initiative: A Review of Select Procurements in Six Countries.  For this research, Save the Children looked at the procurement documents that so often shape how policies at the headquarters level translate into programs in the field.  Based on the content of these procurements, our researchers scored USAID’s efforts to promote county ownership across the six countries.  They found that in all six countries reviewed, USAID integrates country ownership principles satisfactorily.  Moreover, USAID collects a wealth of data through its programs that could be analyzed to assess its multi-faceted effort more comprehensively and used more strategically to inform its operations – particularly its engagement with local institutions.

The report recommends three action for USAID: 1) conduct a more comprehensive review of efforts across all countries implementing the Local Solutions initiative to report on progress and identify and scale up promising practices; 2) adopt additional standardized indicators to complement the current single indicator and expand the agency’s ability to track more broadly its efforts to promote country ownership; and 3) pay more attention to the local institutions working on agency-funded activities as sub-grantees or sub-contractors.

Effective tools to evaluate country ownership can impact the way USAID does development and could shift the entire sector towards practices that advance countries’ local priorities and ownership over decisions about their own development.  Similarly, adopting a consistent set of indicators would ensure that all USAID Missions around the world “speak the same language” and learn from each other.

The procurements reviewed show that USAID is prompting movement in the right direction with the Local Solutions initiative.  In Uganda, USAID is emphasizing the need for its projects to be measured against the goals of the Government of Uganda, not just its own goals.  Furthermore, USAID is recommending that monitoring and evaluation of project activities be carried out with participation from local organizations.

Country ownership – and USAID’s Local Solutions initiative – can transform the way aid is delivered while upholding human dignity and supporting people to become agents of their own development.  Save the Children’s report attempts to fill crucial information gaps in the implementation of USAID’s Local Solutions initiative and draw the aid community’s attention to the urgent need for a comprehensive progress update as the initiative enters its fifth year of implementation.

A Race to the Top: The 2014 Aid Transparency Index and Why it Matters

Friday, October 17th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sarah Lucas, Program Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This piece originally appeared on the Hewlett Foundation’s blog on October 16.

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The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) won the race to the top in 2014. But if the past few years are any indication, it won’t hold onto the top spot for long. Last year the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation took top honors, and in 2012 it was the UK Department for International Development. The fact that the race is on—for increased transparency in foreign assistance—is a huge tribute to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI). The Index, in its fourth year of publication, ranks an ever-growing number of global donors (currently 68) on how transparent their spending is.

Last week’s launch of the 2014 ATI at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC offered four very different leaders in transparency a chance to talk about how ATI is inspiring agencies to action, and why that matters—one each from a multilateral donor, a bilateral donor, a civil society network, and a ministry of finance.

Ranking tenth in 2012, and forth in 2013, UNDP crept their way up to #1 on the Index in 2014. They took the long-view, built the necessary systems, and in the words of Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, they made a deliberate decision to change their culture and mindset toward openness—not just at headquarters, but across their 140 country offices.

If UNDP ran a marathon to the top spot, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) ran a sprint. PEPFAR ranks only 30th on the 2014 Index, so why the hype? Well, just last year they were number 50. PEPFAR is a clear case of what you can achieve if you have a real champion for open data in the drivers’ seat. Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and head of PEPFAR, is just that. With three decades working in HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health, she came into office with a clear-eyed and heartfelt interest in data. She started at PEPFAR in April 2014, just three months before the cut-off for data collection for the 2014 ATI. After the launch event, a representative of Publish What you Fund mentioned that Birx has asked them what she could do to improve on the Index. No one believed she could move the needle in 2014 because she had so little time. But in the course of just a few weeks, she took the program up 20 spots. Proof positive that political will is more important than the technical or administrative complications of opening the books.

As interesting as the horserace is, it is not nearly as interesting as why UNDP and PEPFAR made these moves. Why do these agencies want to be in the race at all?

The most common “whys” behind aid transparency center on two principles:

Facilitate accountability—If citizens (in both donor and recipient countries) have more information about aid flows, they can better hold their governments accountable for using it well. Dalitso Kubalasa, Executive Director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, made this case clearly at the launch event. For years he and his colleagues have literally had to knock on the doors of donors and their own government to eke out data about who is spending what in his country. That’s definitely one way to slow him down in holding his government accountable!

Improve planning—How can country governments, and their donor partners, plan interventions and allocate resources if they don’t have a clear picture of what others are doing? How do you know whether to allocate your scarce education resources to teacher training, building classrooms, or school feeding programs if you don’t know who is doing what in the sector?

These reasons are compelling enough. But Birx and Xu took it a big step further. At the launch, they told us why increased transparency matters for their ability to get their jobs done. Together, they argued that more transparency helps them:

Build a base of support—Xu noted that UNDP relies on voluntary contributions and being transparent about what they do makes it easier to attract support. Birx pointed out that in the face of so many domestic priorities, the American people deserve to know how aid dollars are being spent. She also argued that only with hard data can you make the case that we are not “done” with HIV/AIDS even though global advocates have partly moved on to other things.

Promote innovation and learn from failure—Subject yourself to scrutiny, Xu argued, and you’ll learn how to improve. “There is a lot of self-interest in this,” he said. And while most data agencies don’t yet release much data on program results (focusing first on the more universally comparable financial data), Publish What You Fund hopes they will in the future. Birx is on board with that. “Negative results would be great,” she said, because they give you a chance to build on lessons, do better in the future and help others avoid your mistakes.

These additional “whys”—as compelling as they are—are inwardly-focused. All of the speakers, including keynote Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance from Nigeria, encouraged us to dream even bigger. The future vision for aid transparency includes being able to:

Spend more time doing good work, and less time tracking down the dollars—Several audience members rightfully asked, who is actually using aid data in developing countries? I’llnever forget meeting the poor guy in Malawi charged with tracking and coordinating across donor-funded health programs. Tucked away in a basement office in the Ministry of Health, he had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with binders, each labeled for a different donor—PEPFAR, Global Fund, JICA, UNDP, USAID, SIDA, AFDB, DFID, and on and on. Imagine if instead of riffling through all these binders to answer the question, “how much are donors spending on malaria prevention and treatment in Malawi?” he could go to a one-stop-shop for data online? That vision is why the ATI not only measures if agencies make their data public, but also whether they report it to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)’s Registry.

Set a high bar for developing governments too—Both Minister Okonjo-Iweala and Kubalasa were passionate on this point. Aid is only one piece of the puzzle, and for some, at least, an increasingly small one. There is a collective responsibility for development outcomes and transparency of financial flows. By getting their own houses in order, donors set an example for partner countries to publish their budgets as well. Minister Okonjo-Iweala said, almost to herself, “I haven’t published all the aid we have received . . . maybe I should do that. It would be a good complement to publishing our own budget.” She then added more firmly, “We are moving, but haven’t reached Nirvana yet!”

Better target resources to needs—Birx got practically giddy when she described what’s next for PEPFAR: site-level data (think villages or communities). She said all partner organizations funded by PEPFAR in 2014 had to agree to produce site-level data. Why is Birx pushing for this? If you look at average values for resources or results across all program sites, you won’t know which are under/over resourced relative to need. But if you can triangulate site-level data—for example, on resource flows, rates of counseling and testing services, results in prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and HIV positivity levels, you could seriously tailor your interventions, use your more money more wisely, and save more lives.

Attract creative minds to solve complex problems—In another call for multi-dimensional analysis, Birx expressed frustration at not being able to bring together economic, demographic, health, and financial data to really understand complex development problems and the resources dedicated to solving them. However, there are surely data-savvy, service-minded people who can do this. The key, she argued, is to make databases “appealing and discernable” enough to attract attention. It’s not enough to put gobs of data on a website. People need help navigating the data and understanding why they’re important. That’s why the ATI measures not only availability of data, but its accessibility too. Six of the seven top performers in 2014 have open data portals that promote access to and use of their data. For example, check out portals for DFIDSweden,UNDPMCC and the World Bank.

These speakers made a compelling case for why aid transparency matters, and why they will continue to push their own agencies to improve. With all this motivation, let’s hope we see even more donors jockeying to move up the Index in 2015.

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.