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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.

 

Transforming foreign assistance

Monday, April 15th, 2013
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See below for an op-ed from MFAN’s co-chairs Rev. David Beckmann, George Ingram, and Jim Kolbe. This piece first appeared in Politico.

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The amount of good our nation has done for poor and hungry people around the world over the last ten years is astounding. We have saved and improved millions of lives through programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was launched by former President George W. Bush to battle the disease in Africa, and the Feed the Future initiative, which President Obama started to support small farmers and the growth of local economies in developing countries.

Behind these big ticket initiatives, our foreign assistance approach has also been transformed into a more rigorously evaluated, strategic and selective one that is focused on helping developing countries and citizens take control of their own future. Completing this transformation must be a foreign policy priority for Obama and his successors because effective and robust development efforts will have to play a larger role in U.S. foreign policy if we are to maintain a strong global presence as our major military engagements end.

Recently, the United States Agency for International Development released the results of an extensive internal evaluation that provided the first evidence that reform is making the machinery of U.S. foreign assistance work better. The USAID Forward Progress Report provides a look at how the agency is implementing the reforms that Obama outlined in his landmark Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD) in 2010. The PPD, the first government-wide development policy reform guidance ever issued from the White House, mapped out the transformation agenda and highlighted a “long-term commitment to rebuilding USAID as the U.S. government’s lead development agency and as the world’s premier development agency.”

In the years since, USAID has focused on reforming key areas:

Evaluation and Selectivity: The creation of both the new USAID Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning and the position of Chief Economist have had clear impact on the agency’s ability to plan and to measure programs and thus make more strategic decisions. The report notes that since 2011, 186 in-depth program evaluations have been completed and published for public review. Furthermore, thanks to a more concerted use of strategic planning, the agency reduced total numbers of program areas by 22 percent and phased out agricultural programs and global health programs in 21 and 17 countries, respectively, where local institutions are in position to take charge.

Country ownership: USAID’s launch of a process to develop Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) – which involve close and cross-sectoral collaboration with recipient countries to set goals and adapt programs – is an important step towards giving partners and citizens more responsibility and accountability within the development process. Twenty CDCS processes were completed in 2012. Efforts to expand country ownership were further strengthened by the agency’s efforts to direct more resources to local institutions. The report notes a 50 percent increase in funding to local organizations since 2010, from 9.7 percent in 2010 to 14.3 percent this year.

Economic Growth and Innovation: The report outlines that strengthening the Development Credit Authority (DCA) has allowed USAID to leverage more private capital – $524 million in 2012 alone – to support entrepreneurship and growth in developing countries. A premium has also been put on new technology: six USAID missions are now actively using and supporting mobile applications to catalyze development.

Partnership: In addition to strengthening relationships with recipient governments, institutions, and citizens, USAID has developed new partnerships with universities and other private sector organizations in order to build local capacity and improve program outcomes.

Transparency: USAID has established a rigorous, multi-step risk assessment mechanism for determining host country governments’ readiness to receive government-to-government assistance from the U.S. If at any point in this process a government fails to meet those eligibility criteria, it is disqualified from further consideration. Similarly, the Obama administration launched the Foreign Assistance Dashboard over two years ago to make information about U.S. assistance more accessible to both American citizens and those of recipient countries, and has committed to publish its assistance data with the International Assistance Transparency Initiative (IATI).

In addition to increased diligence and resolve by the Obama administration and USAID, congressional engagement is needed to solidify these reforms. The president’s budget includes strong reform elements, including a proposal to reshape the inefficient U.S. food aid system to reach more people and save more taxpayer dollars, and we urge Congress to support this and other proposals, like transparency legislation introduced by Rep.Ted Poe (R-Texas).

Completing the transformation of U.S. foreign assistance will reposition the U.S. as not just the most generous, but also the most strategic, innovative, and effective player in global development. We have saved and improved millions of lives over the last ten years and our efforts have helped strengthen our image abroad: a new field survey of aid recipient countries by Oxfam America finds that 83 percent of respondents believe the U.S. is a better development partner now than five years ago. The opportunity at hand for the next ten years is to turn progress into lasting change by helping those people take control of their own lives.

Rev. David Beckmann, a 2010 World Food Prize laureate, is the president of Bread for the World. George Ingram is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona, is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. They are co-chairman of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

 

 

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.”

Who Do YOU Think Should Serve on the Global Development Council?

Monday, January 7th, 2013
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Just before the holidays, the White House announced nominations for nine of the twelve seats on the President’s Global Development Council. As you recall, the Council—established by executive order last February—was originally called for in the 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD-6).

Click here to see the nine individuals appointed to the Council so far.

As MFAN Principal Sarah Jane Staats, director of the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Project at the Center for Global Development, writes, “The line-up so far pulls in research, private sector and philanthropic expertise and does not include operational or advocacy organizations (which may be a smart move to avoid conflict of interest with organizations who receive federal dollars for aid programs).”

Though the President is not obligated to fill all twelve slots, we’re interested to hear who you think should fill the remaining three seats.

Who else should be on the Global Development Council? Let us know by:

Send us your suggestions by January 14.

Once we’ve gotten enough suggestions, we will ask you to take our poll and vote on who you think should be on the Council. The names of the three individuals with the most votes will then be shared with the White House.

We look forward to collecting your nominations!