blog logo image

Archive for the ‘White House’ Category

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

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

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

***

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

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

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

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

Why It’s Taking So Long

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

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

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

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

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

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

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

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

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

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

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

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

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

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

Strength through Development

Thursday, May 29th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

See below for a guest post from MFAN Executive Committee Member and Accountability Working Group Co-Chair Diana Ohlbaum.

***

In his graduation speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama laid out a national security doctrine based on partnership, multilateralism, international law, diplomacy and development.  Explaining how democracy, free markets, and respect for human rights abroad benefit us here at home, he asserted: “Foreign assistance is not an afterthought, something nice to do apart from our national defense, apart from our national security. It is part of what makes us strong.”

Development advocates and practitioners have often resisted justifying their work on national security grounds, fearing that development objectives would be sacrificed on the altar of security imperatives.  But now the tables have turned: for the first time, there is high-level understanding that effective development is imperative if we are to meet our security objectives.

The U.S. Global Development Council is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opening to institutionalize development as a full partner, alongside diplomacy and defense, in our national security triad.  But the President didn’t mention the Council in his speech, and the Council doesn’t seem to have security on its radar screen.

Just over a month ago, the Council held its first official, public meeting, at which it released a document with 7 recommendations for strengthening U.S. development efforts.  Although it met with a few immediate, and largely complimentary, reviews – including those of Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo at the Center for Global Development, John Glenn of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, George Ingram of Brookings, and Connie Veillette of The Lugar Center– overall, the response was fairly muted.  Given the years of effort that led to its creation, and the two years of work that went into developing the recommendations, this lack of fanfare is discouraging.  What are we to read into the silence?

1)      The recommendations themselves were neither new nor particularly controversial.  The idea of creating a Development Finance Bank was proposed in 2011 by Todd Moss and Ben Leo; the road to harnessing the private sector was paved by USAID through its Global Development Alliances, now expanded into the Global Development Lab; the calls for greater transparency and more rigorous evaluations of impact have been issued by MFAN since Gayle Smith was among its leaders.  The fact that some of these have failed to gain traction with Congress and the Administration ought to have given the Council some pause: what are the underlying obstacles that prevent these ideas from being realized, and how can we, as a Council, work to resolve them?

2)      The purpose and value of the Council as an institution remains unclear.  As John Norris and Noam Unger noted after the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development announced that the Council would be formed, there was little initial guidance about its aims.  Beyond a statement that the Council was to provide high-level input relevant to the work of United States Government agencies”, nothing was said about its objectives or authorities. The Executive Order creating the Council added more details: the Council was to “inform the policy and practice of U.S. global development policy and programs by providing advice to the President and other senior officials,” “support new and existing public-private partnerships,” and “increase awareness and action in support of development.”  All of these functions are currently being carried out by USAID (including through the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid) and the National Security Council, so what is the Global Development Council’s added value?

3)      The public outreach function is at odds with the private advice function.  If the Council’s sole task were to provide advice to the President and senior officials, then it could play an important role in promoting policy coherence and addressing the “hot button” political issues of tax, trade, and agricultural policy that have such important ramifications for global development.  But, understandably, the Administration is reluctant to give outsiders a peek into such sensitive policy decisions.  On the flip side, the fact that the Council makes its recommendations to the President renders it unwilling or unable to conduct its work transparently and with broad public participation, which would be necessary for the Council to serve as a bridge between the public and private sectors.  Sadly, its dual mission has in some ways forced the Council to adopt the worst of both worlds.

Whither the Council?

There is one function that is absolutely essential to the future of development as a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and which is not currently being carried out by any U.S. government or outside entity of which I am aware: an exploration of WHY development is important to U.S. national security.  Sure, we all have our slogans and talking points about the relationship between global development and U.S. jobs and exports, conflict and instability, health, migration, climate change, and so forth, but how much of it has actually been quantified through scientific research, or built into a compelling narrative that can be easily explained to the average American citizen?  As anyone who has ever tried to pitch foreign aid to the public surely knows, it’s an uphill battle.  It takes time and effort, and there’s ample evidence that people simply ignore facts that don’t fit within their existing belief system.  But if we’re ever to get beyond the third-class status accorded development and begin treating it as a national security and foreign policy imperative, we need to demonstrate exactly why that’s the case – including, but not exclusively, because it reflects our moral values.  This is a job that the Global Development Council, as a public-private initiative, is uniquely positioned to perform.

To fulfill this mission, the Council would need to take a multi-pronged approach: research, to discover what we know and don’t know about the relationship between development and national security; recommendations to the President about the “spill-over” effects of our non-aid policies (such as trade, energy, environment, agriculture, tax, and arms sales) on global development; outreach and collaboration with the private sector to get the messages out and the policies right; turning the West Point speech and the soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy into actionable steps for development; and bringing the message to the American public through the Presidential Conference on Global Development that the Council has recommended.

That would not only put the meat on the bones of the Obama Doctrine, it would breathe new life into a Council that has otherwise failed to excite.

The Unfinished Business of Foreign Aid Reform

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

See below for a guest post from MFAN Honorary Co-Chairs former Senator Richard Lugar, former Representative Howard Berman, and former Representative Jim Kolbe. This piece originally appeared on The Hill.

***

In 2008 a group of foreign policy luminaries issued a proposal to promote a “fresh, smart approach to U.S. foreign policy and engagement in the world.” As the name of their new coalition implied, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) sought to reform a foreign aid system that was badly outdated and poorly equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century. MFAN offered a set of core principles and priority actions for making foreign assistance more effective, more efficient, and better at serving our national interests. Their ideas inspired each of us to engage in foreign aid reform from our individual leadership positions within and outside of Congress.

Over the intervening six years, notable progress has been made. Both the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review sought to elevate the role of global development in our foreign policy, and to adopt a more evidence-based and results-oriented approach to aid. For the first time ever, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched high-quality, scientifically rigorous evaluations of their work, geared toward identifying lessons that could be applied to future programming. Secretary Clinton committed the United States to participation in the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and in 2013 the MCC was ranked by Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index as the most transparent donor organization in the world. USAID refocused its work by driving game-changing innovations, using science and technology to solve age-old challenges, creating new and improved partnerships, and rebuilding its own human capital in order to demonstrate real results. And while these changes have not yet been codified, the hard work has been done to prepare comprehensive reform legislation that transforms the unsustainable donor-recipient relationship into one of equal partners working toward mutually agreed upon and beneficial goals.

In light of this progress, and recognizing the many challenges that still remain, this year MFAN has reconstituted itself and is launching “The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond” – its vision of the future of foreign aid, and its recommendations for the next steps to get there. As Honorary Co-Chairs of MFAN, we support its sharpened focus on two interrelated areas where progress will have the greatest impact: accountability and ownership.

While these two concepts may not be well-understood outside a small circle of development experts, MFAN’s task will be to broaden awareness of their inextricable links to effective development and to each other. “Accountability” through transparency, evaluation and learning is, in effect, a feedback loop that strengthens public engagement in order to improve program results. By revealing exactly how funds are being spent, aid transparency enables stakeholders to monitor implementation and provide real-time information that can be used to avoid corruption and to better reach those in need. Conducting independent evaluations that not only measure simple outputs (such as number of teachers trained or wells drilled) but actual impacts (such as improved reading skills or reduced disease burden) will help us to determine which programs bring the greatest bang for the buck, and how. The lessons that are learned through greater transparency and rigorous evaluations must then be fed back into the system to guide spending decisions and improve program design.

“Ownership” is both a result of accountability and a pre-requisite for it. Our local partners will not feel responsible for making programs work if they are not part of the decision-making process, and they cannot be part of the decision-making process without detailed information about our aid budgets, plans and activities. Too often in the past, aid decisions were made without considering the views and capabilities of local partners and beneficiaries, and without engaging them in program implementation. Yet if there is one thing that we have learned from experience, it is that doing for is not nearly as helpful as doing with. Ultimately, our goal is for developing countries to become self-reliant, with governments that answer to the people and vibrant economies that expand opportunities and hope for all – especially women and others who have been marginalized and excluded. To succeed in this effort we must heed local priorities, use local systems, and leverage local resources.

Applying the principles of accountability and country ownership to our aid programs will help poor countries to take responsibility for their own development, and will help citizens of our own country to feel confident that their taxpayer dollars are being well spent. MFAN’s new agenda sets out a list of criteria and benchmarks for judging how well U.S. foreign assistance conforms to these principles, and its member organizations will continue to work both at home and abroad to put these principles into practice. We look forward to working together on this new way forward.

Richard G. Lugar, a former Republican senator from Indiana and chairman of the Agriculture and Foreign Relations Committees, runs TheLugarCenter.org. Howard L. Berman, a former Democratic congressman from California and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, serves as a senior advisor at Covington & Burling. Jim Kolbe, a former member of Congress, is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Senior Adviser at McLarty Associates. The three serve as Honorary Co-Chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).

President’s Global Development Council: Fine Work But Now What (and When)?

Thursday, April 24th, 2014
Bookmark and Share

See below for a post from Connie Veillette, Senior Fellow for Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center and MFAN Co-Chair.

***

The President’s Global Development Council (GDC) released a much awaited report (Beyond Business as Usual) April 14 calling for a focus on the private sector, innovation, transparency and evidence, climate smart food security, and global leadership. Many of its points coincide with current thinking in development quarters, one of which is the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) new policy paper.

The wait for a GDC product has been exceedingly lengthy. The Council was born out of the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development issued way back in 2010. I should note here that many of us hailed the PPD for its emphasis on transparency, country ownership, and even more selectivity and focus in funding choices. One can see many of its principles reflected in U.S. development programs, although not to the level that many of us expected four years hence. From 2010 until GDC members were named in 2012, the development community waited. Once the members were named, a new waiting game began for what the council would do and how it would do it. But two years later, they have issued a fine report.

Now what? The GDC was created to “provide high-level input relevant to the work of United States Government agencies.” The report notes that it “will also explore other areas moving forward.” This is a good thing for a number of reasons.

First, while I agree that the GDC focus areas are important, and some are downright crucial, I would suggest that the Council left out a particularly difficult but nonetheless critical issue, that of country ownership. The vast majority of the development community believes in the value of building local capacity and in engaging governments, business, and civil society in creating and implementing development strategies. However, there is considerable disagreement on how best to do this. There is even disagreement on such an elementary question as what country ownership means. MFAN has formed a working group on this very issue. Our goal is to help inform this dialogue within the administration, Congress, aid implementers, and the public.

Second, time is running out. A GDC goal is to help institutionalize many PPD principals within government agencies. It is quite conceivable that GDC can continue into the next administration, but there are no guarantees. GDC should be operating within the premise that its work is done by the end of 2016. Given the administration’s track record in getting the panel named and up and running, and then the fits and starts of the Council over the last two years, my concerns seem merited.

Third, do we really need another conference? And who is the audience? And will the administration want to lead an effort that would require huge investments in stature, planning, funding, partnerships, etc. in order to have much of an effect on U.S. public opinion? (Are we talking about annual Farm Aid concerts that have raised public awareness of the value of American farmers?) Such an event may be fun for attendees, but better value may be found in working on identifying best practices and helping U.S. agencies implement them. As the report notes…”The Council will place particular emphasis on identifying successful approaches to inclusive and sustainable development and will be open about those approaches that don’t work.” Hallelujah.

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

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
Bookmark and Share

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.

***

#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.