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MFAN Congratulates MCC on Its 10th Anniversary

November 18th, 2014
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November 18, 2014 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network congratulates the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) on 10 years of fighting global poverty and delivering foreign assistance in an innovative, transparent and results-oriented way. MCC has been an important partner in driving U.S. foreign assistance reform, especially in MFAN’s priority areas of accountability and country ownership.

Throughout the past 10 years, the MCC has been committed to delivering smart, effective foreign assistance by focusing on partnerships, country-led solutions and implementation, accountability and results. MCC has put a strong emphasis on policy performance, which has had a positive impact on generating country-led policy reforms in partner countries – known as the “MCC Effect.”  The agency has also been a global leader when it comes to aid transparency and the top U.S. agency in sharing timely and quality data about its work. In 2013 and 2014 MCC was rated first and third, respectively, on Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, a ranking of more than 60 of the world’s leading donors.

We once again extend our congratulations to the MCC and its 300 dedicated employees on a decade of pioneering reform and look forward to continuing to work closely with the agency to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective and accountable.

The 114th Congress and Prospects for International Development

November 14th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings blog on November 13.

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Conventional wisdom has it that foreign assistance is best supported by a Republican president and a Democratic Congress—Democrats are generally supportive of foreign assistance and a Republican president can convince his party’s legislators to support his foreign assistance programs. Add to that the dysfunction of recent congresses and the continued heightened partisanship, and the prospects for the newly elected 114th Congress taking constructive action on foreign assistance would appear dim.

For three reasons, I believe this pessimistic structural assessment does not reflect current reality, though it’s true that funding levels will remain a struggle and could be a target of a future budget battle.

International Crises Remind Us of the World

Turning to the old adage of “never waste a crisis,” the inward-looking turn reflected in opinion polls at the beginning of the 2014 election cycle was reversed by early fall—likely due to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Ebola, which, by reminding the body politic that we ignore the world at our own peril, returned the American public to its more historical position of supporting international engagement. Further, as analyzed by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “isolationism” was the big loser in the campaign. While there candidates advocating for retrenchment from international affairs, few of those articulating a “closed door” were elected and a number of the new members have international experience through the military, business, and other venues (full disclosure: I serve as honorary chairman of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition).

Strong Leadership on Committees to Continue

The congressional committees with jurisdiction over international affairs are likely to be under the leadership of committed internationalists who understand and support foreign assistance. Where the leadership will change in the Senate, the incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, are strong supporters of foreign assistance and they and their staffs have demonstrated interest in legislation to modernize foreign assistance policy and programs. Their predecessors, Senators Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, respectively, also are strong supporters of foreign assistance and likely to serve as the ranking Democrats on the committees. In the House, Nita Lowey is slated to retain her position as the ranking Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee and the candidates to succeed subcommittee Chair Kay Granger also are supporters of foreign assistance. On the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Henry Royce and ranking Democrat Elliot Engel will retain their positions.

Less Partisanship, but Resources Remain in Jeopardy

Most of the current issues involving foreign assistance fly under partisan radar. Sure, there will be the perennial contest around family planning policies and struggles around funding for a few less favorite accounts like the United Nations and the multilateral banks. Members will disagree on the nature of and how exactly to confront the Islamic State and Ebola, but at the end of the debates they will support U.S. policies and resources to confront these two scourges.

Just as the Obama Administration has supported and continued key Bush Administration initiatives—notably PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—so, too, has the Republican Congress generally supported Obama initiatives in the foreign assistance realm.

There are ongoing and new efforts to write some of the initiatives into law, specifically in three areas. There has been strong support for legislation to authorize Power Africa; the bill has passed the House and has good support in the Senate. In recent months Obama’s Feed the Future has been the subject of serious administration/Congress/civil society deliberations to draft implementing legislation, and those discussions are expected to result in a bill with strong bipartisan support. The Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act would write into law the Administration’s policy initiatives on data transparency and evaluation. It has bipartisan support and is the subject of discussions to move the current bill in the lame-duck session or a revised draft in the new Congress. That consideration of moving the legislation to the next Congress conveys legislators’ comfort with the idea that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

There is reason for concern on the matter of resources. Not from immediate action, as both House and Senate appropriations committees have marked international affairs for fiscal year 2015 at $49.9 billion, just below the FY 2014 level of $50.6 billion and $1.6 billion shy of the administration’s request of $51.5 billion for FY 2015. The current continuing resolution is actually at $50.4 billion. And the Congress is likely to support most or part of the administration’s emergency request for Ebola of $6.4 billion.

The greater concern is for FY 2016 and 2017. Sequestration kicks back in next year and there will be efforts to protect defense, possibly at the expense of non-defense accounts. And, while the appropriators will remain advocates of foreign assistance funding, the House and Senate budget committees have traditionally not been so supportive. Incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions is in keeping with this mold. Back to not wasting a crisis—Ebola, the Islamic State, and the continuing uncertainty through much of the Middle East should be enough to keep members focused on the importance of the ability of the U.S. to be an active participant in world events.

The Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

Two related international affairs matters to keep an eye on are the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (EXIM) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). EXIM does not traditionally fall under the development rubric, but the export finance agency is slated under the administration’s plans to provide $5 billion of the $7 billion of U.S. government funding for power projects under its signature initiative Power Africa. Over the past several years EXIM has been a prime target of conservative Republicans. Rejecting the arguments that it creates jobs, levels the playing field for U.S. exporters, and pays its own way, they attack the agency as corporate welfare. Anticipating Republican control of the Senate in the new Congress, they orchestrated a temporary extension of EXIM’s authorities to June 2015, so reauthorization of EXIM will likely be a donnybrook battle for the new session.

Reauthorization of OPIC is less controversial. A temporary extension is in the continuing resolution and will be carried forward in whatever replaces the continuing resolution (it expires December 11), either a new continuing resolution into early next year or an omnibus appropriations bill for the entire fiscal year 2015. A permanent reauthorization has been part of the Power Africa legislation and could be carried there or in other legislation.

Engage the Congress

Bottom line: it’s worth our time to engage with the 114th Congress, as there will be opportunities to improve our foreign assistance policies and programs and funding levels will need our support.

What Teach a Woman to Fish Can Teach Us

November 4th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings blog on November 3.

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Ritu Sharma, founder and CEO of Women Thrive, recently published Teach a Woman to Fish. The book centers on her experiences working beside poor, women-led families in four developing countries.

The book is much more than just a nice, interesting, feel-good story about the lives of strong women in poor villages. It is a tapestry woven from a medley of threads—human interest stories, political and social analysis, economics, history, development policy, grassroots organizing, how to influence government, and policy prescriptions—all at a very close and personal level. The book “humanizes” development, bringing the lives of real people to what too often are sanitized statistics and policy papers. Teach a Woman to Fish is a series of real human stories interwoven with brief wonk-free tutorials on important policy issues.

For 17 years Ritu has been a force leading Women Thrive, which in turn has been a key driver behind the Washington policy community’s growing acknowledgement of the critical role of women and the importance of taking a gender approach to development.

The Teachers are the Poor, Not Us

For me, the overarching message of the book is that the poor have the solutions to their problems. Our western answers often are not the only, nor the best, solutions. But those struggling to improve their lives, and their country’s future, can use our support and understanding in helping them unlock those solutions.

There are many local organizations—companies, NGOs, grassroots networks, government—that are helping to create those opportunities. External donors and other development actors should be seeking out these local organizations and supporting them in their efforts to empower and unlock opportunities for the poor. This is the fundamental rationale that underpins the priority USAID and the development community put on local ownership. The book offers real examples and explanations of why this policy is the right approach. Local ownership is not a silver bullet for development, nor is it the sole approach, but in many instances it is the right approach.

This fits with how Ritu sees poverty: “…poverty is not about having no money; it’s about having no power to change your own circumstances.”

The “Girl Effect”

If you have ever wondered about the “girl effect” and why education is so important—not just for its direct impact on girls and women, but also its contribution to moving entire communities and countries out of poverty and onto sustainable patterns of prosperity—read this book. There are entire books devoted to the role of education in development, but in just a few pages Ritu gives you the basic course and makes it alive with real people. She explains why education is more than just teaching in the classroom, and why food, nutrition, and health are all critical for children to be able to focus and learn. She explains why education is not achieved simply by getting children into schools, but that they must actually learn to reap the benefits, to achieve the girl effect.

She describes the nature of discrimination against women and why we should all stand up to end this all-too-prevalent practice. She confronts us with the reality of violence against women, including sexual violence. She explains why child marriage disempowers and harms girls.

Ritu introduces the reader to small-scale farming and why the practice of prohibiting women from owning land—the very land they farm—discourages efficient and productive farming and must be overcome. This is happening in some countries, although much too slowly.

Influencing Government

Teach a Woman to Fish is a tutorial on how to accomplish practical goals. Do you want to know about networking, organizing, and advocacy? Ritu explains how these work at the grassroots and the national level and why they are powerful tools for empowering the poor. She explains how village-level women’s networks function and what they can accomplish; how women’s groups organized at the national level to influence a government’s request to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and even circumvented their own government to go directly to the U.S. Congress and the MCC; how Women Thrive mobilized to influenced the MCC to adopt a gender policy, and not just a notional one but a strong one, and then to hire a gender expert to make sure the policy was implemented; how Women Thrive worked the halls of Congress in pursuit of legislation on violence against women; and what you can do to influence your representative in Congress.

And then there is Fair Trade and the power of the purse—how we can influence corporate behavior simply by our purchasing decisions.

Role of Foreign Aid

Ritu explains why foreign assistance is important for U.S. interests in the world.  She advocates using assistance to promote poverty reduction and the rights of people, and warns against cutting off assistance as the unintended consequences of that action may adversely affect the very people we seek to help.

The stories provide an insight into how the American aid agencies—USAID and the MCC—sometimes get it right in improving the lives of individuals and communities, but not always.

The book introduces you to village heroines: Irangani, Malini, Maria, Carmen. Ritu tells us about a few heroes named Kepali and Mahesh. And she even introduces some U.S. heroes and heroines: a corporate hero by the name of Ed and two Congressional heroines named Nita and Beth.

Who Should Read This Book

  • Development policy experts who know the theory and policy of development but not the reality on the ground
  • Field-grounded implementers who know what happens in villages but not how to communicate that to policymakers and translate that experience into policy
  • College professors teaching an introductory course in development, international economics, international relations, and global women’s studies
  • Regular people who want to understand how others live and how we can make a difference

What comes through in Ritu’s stories is her admiration for village women who are sustaining the lives and livelihoods of their families. She is humbled by their stamina and fortitude, their good sense and good humor, and their kindness and generosity. She relates how much she has learned from them.

Ritu, I thank you for this essay and sharing with us your experiences at the village level and your well-reasoned policy prescriptions.

Thank you for teaching us.

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

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.

InterAction Moves Forward On Transparency

October 8th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Laia Grino, Senior Manager for Transparency, Accountability and Results at InterAction. This post originally appeared on InterAction’s blog on October 7th.

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This morning, Publish What You Fund (PWYF) will launch its 2014 Aid Transparency Index, which ranks donors according to the amount – and quality – of the aid information they publish. As a partner, we know that every year the Index prompts a mad rush around the deadline for data collection, as donors seek to improve their scores. This race to the top is exactly what PWYF aims to accomplish, and through this the Index has proven to be a very effective tool.

Yet the impact of the Index goes beyond just the ranked donors. It’s also an occasion for the broader transparency community to reflect on where we are. At InterAction, we’ve been thinking about our own transparency and believe this is the right moment to announce that we are taking an important step forward. I am happy to say that we have adopted an open information policy, and in line with that commitment, intend to publish information on our work according to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard.

Our open information policy is an expression of InterAction’s commitment to transparency and openness, and is meant to guide the way in which InterAction shares information. In it, we lay out five principles that underpin our approach to transparency:

  • Disclose information proactively
  • Assume a presumption in favor of openness
  • Provide information in accessible formats
  • Make it easy to find information
  • Adhere to high data quality standards

Recognizing that there are times when full transparency may be dangerous or counterproductive, the policy also describes the criteria we will use to determine when not to share information.

Why has InterAction chosen to go down this route?

First, we believe that it is important to practice what you preach. For several years now, InterAction has been advocating for greater U.S. government transparency. We have also worked to improve the transparency of our own community, through initiatives like NGO Aid Map. Showing that we’re willing to take the same step is important for maintaining our credibility with our members, donors and partners. Moreover, in 2010 InterAction played a key role in developing the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness, in which civil society organizations (CSOs) committed to being transparent and accountable. By adopting this policy, we are living up to this commitment and demonstrating that we take our commitments as seriously as we expect donors to take theirs.

Second, we feel an open information policy is just good practice. It is not enough to just say you will be transparent – formally expressing that commitment allows people to understand your approach and also gives them a way of holding you accountable.

Finally, we think it’s the smart thing to do. While people often worry about the costs of transparency, we believe that in the long-run, sharing information proactively will save us time. Rather than having to prepare tailored responses to each individual information request, in many cases we will be able to point people to our website to find the information we have available. Like others before us, I expect that the process of becoming more open will also help us improve our internal information management practices, making us more effective as an organization.

As several experts noted in our “Why Transparency Matters” blog series, transparency is a process. It starts with a commitment, but requires ongoing attention and effort. You are never “done” being transparent. In the weeks and months to come, we will be taking both big and small steps to improve our transparency. Making the data already on our website –such as that in our Member Directory – more accessible by making it exportable is a small step (and one we’ve already taken). Publishing to IATI is a big step, and will take some time to do right. We look forward to walking down this path.