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Transparency and Foreign Assistance: Fulfilling U.S. Commitments

June 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sally Paxton, U.S. Representative for Publish What You Fund.

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Yesterday, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network announced their new policy agenda, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond. One of the pillars of the new policy is accountability and transparency.

I was asked to discuss how the U.S. can best use IATI and the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to keep its transparency commitments. So, as the U.S. continues its work, here are my top five recommendations for how to best achieve our aid transparency goals:

1. Publish high quality data, then use it often. The top priority must be publication of high quality data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), complete with the “value added” fields such as geocoding, results and forward spending. Get one set of really good data, then use it over and over. Use it to meet our Busan commitments. Use it to report to Congress. Use it for the Dashboard. Encourage agencies to use it for their own internal data management and to inform their decision-making. One good set of data can serve a multitude of purposes. The Dutch and Swedish government have fully adopted the “publish once and use often” approach. We should too.

2. Share our data with the world. Data must be published to the IATI registry without delay and in its entirety. We don’t want just the U.S. to use our own data – we want the world to have access and to have every platform that is built using IATI data to include U.S. foreign assistance data. Otherwise, the significant role of the U.S. in foreign assistance is either misled or undervalued.

3. The U.S. should promote the use of IATI. In additional to using it internally – it can be a great management tool – the U.S. should talk with our partner countries to understand what they need to make their own decisions and then seek to prioritize that data. If, for example, geocoded information is valuable and in demand, then we should prioritize the publication of geocoded data.

4. Priorities for the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. We support the Dashboard’s current effort to review its own functionality and improve its visualizations. But the first priority has to be in automating the publication of quality, timely and comprehensive aid data from all agencies administering foreign assistance. Once there is a critical mass of quality data, the Dashboard should tackle how users can maximize the site. And as it works through this review, we have suggested that it should also look at the question of who is its intended user – the U.S. or all users globally? Different users need different portals, depending on the information they seek.

5. Accelerate Progress! Right now, the U.S. is behind in the timetable to meet its IATI commitments. One way to reset our progress is for agencies involved in foreign assistance – particularly State and USAID, which account for approximately 74% of our foreign aid – to make and publish a costed, management plan that lays out the blueprint to full IATI implementation. Such a plan would identify the resources, benchmarks and timetables that put us on a realistic path to the end of 2015. Finally, in both making and implementing this plan, it is essential that policy and technical leaders in an agency work together – a marriage, if you will, that keeps both of these important functions working together. MCC – which finished first in our Index last year – is proof of this point.

We know that, in just a few short years, there has been remarkable global progress on aid transparency. But we are not there yet. In the U.S., there have been a number of positive steps, starting with President Obama’s memorandum on open government and transparency, signed on his first day in office. The launching of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard in 2010 was a welcome announcement, as was Secretary Clinton’s 2011 commitment to IATI in Busan. Likewise, there have been a number of Administration policy pronouncements, all with the aim of improving our reporting, publishing and transparency of aid data.

These steps forward are not only welcomed but very much needed. But they are not enough. Why?

  • Because both globally and in the U.S., the state of aid information is still outdated, piecemeal and can’t be compared across donors.

o   We don’t know, with any detail, what we are spending and with what results;

o   We have little information about what other donors are spending – and with what results;

o   And recipient countries – where we want and expect that they will some day become self sufficient – often have little idea what donors are spending, let alone know what they plan to spend in the future.

  • Thus, without timely, quality, comparable and accessible aid information, the ability to make informed decisions about our foreign assistance is almost accidental.

In IATI, we have a solution to those problems, which is why people like me advocate so much for it. But it’s not just me – IATI has a critical mass of political commitment: donors representing 86% of ODF have agreed to publish their aid data to the Standard. The U.S. has made the political decision. Now it must be among the donors who follow through on that commitment.

Every year, Publish What You Fund does a global assessment of aid transparency among the biggest donors in the world. The picture so far has been mixed, both within the U.S. and globally. We will publish our Aid Transparency Index again this October. We hope to see good progress and improved transparency by all U.S. agencies – we are the biggest single donor in the world and we should be the leading donor on transparency. We can’t afford not to.

 

International aid groups applaud bipartisan legislation to reform international food aid programs

June 4th, 2014
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Washington, D.C.- This statement is delivered on behalf of the endorsing organizations: American Jewish World Service, Bread for the World, CARE, Church World Service, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, Oxfam America, Presbyterian Church USA, Save the Children, The Borgen Project, United Methodist Church: General Board of Church and Society.

As leading organizations working to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition around the world, we welcome the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2014 proposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) and African Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE). If enacted, this bipartisan legislation would provide up to 9 million more people with lifesaving aid at no additional cost by using taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

The bill modernizes U.S. food aid programs, removing outdated red tape and ensuring the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) can reach more of the world’s most vulnerable children and families quickly and effectively during times of crisis. The bill places food aid authorities into the Foreign Assistance Act while maintaining the objectives and core structures of the original program. It would allow USAID to run a 21st century food aid program with the flexibility needed to meet increasing demand from humanitarian crises. We urge members of the Senate to swiftly pass this bill and ensure it is signed into law.

“With a growing number of crises around the world and volatile food and fuel prices stressing aid budgets, it is imperative to build on the momentum achieved through reforms included in the Farm Bill and FY14 appropriations and maximize flexibility to ensure tax dollars get a bigger bang for their buck. We look forward to working with members of both parties to ensure long overdue reforms are passed into law.”

The United States is the world’s most generous donor of food aid, and U.S. international food assistance is one of the most important expressions of American leadership and values abroad. Food aid helps feed 55 million people in need around the world every year, supporting both emergency responses and programs that tackle chronic hunger and malnutrition. This Act responds to the numerous studies and reports that conclude that our system for delivering food aid is plagued by inefficiencies that, if improved, would result in reaching more hungry people more quickly and at no additional cost. One Government Accountability Office study found that because of existing outdated rules, it can take four to six months for U.S. food aid to be procured, shipped and distributed in recipient countries. During urgent crises, these delays can be a matter of life and death.

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The Way Forward: Bringing Accountability and Ownership into Focus

June 4th, 2014
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This past April, MFAN launched a new policy paper laying out a refreshed vision for The Way Forward on aid reform focused on two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars: accountability and country ownership. Last week, we convened the community for a public event to reflect on why these pillars of accountability and country ownership are central to our agenda and how they are being put into practice.

The event began with a reflection on the accomplishments that have been made to date on improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice from MFAN Honorary Co-Chair and Former Congressman Jim Kolbe. Kolbe also took the opportunity to stress the importance of codifying the many important reforms that have been made so that progress is not lost with the ushering in of a new Administration.

To highlight the pillar of accountability, we were joined by Samantha Custer and Dina Abdel-Fattah of AidData and Sally Paxton of Publish What You Fund for insightful presentations. AidData highlighted their geocoding work in Nepal to demonstrate how better data can lead to a broader dialogue and smarter decisionmaking, helping to illustrate the fact that accountability and ownership are mutually reinforcing. They also discussed the importance of mapping the universe of foreign aid in order to have greater impact. AidData also stressed the importance of building the capacity of people to actually use the data and how that will help drive the demand for more and better data. Meanwhile, Paxton took the opportunity to offer five key recommendations for better U.S. aid transparency: publishing high-quality data and using it often; sharing our data with the world; promoting the use of the International Aid Transparency Initiative; publish quality, timely, and comprehensive data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard; and accelerating progress to meet (our already made!) commitments to transparency. You can read about these recommendations in more depth here.

photoFollowing these presentations, MFAN Co-Chair George Ingram moderated a panel discussion featuring Sheila Herrling of the MCC, Tony Pipa of USAID, Asif Shaikh of CSIS, and Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive Worldwide. The panel discussed the importance of – and also the challenges that come with – country ownership. Herrling noted that there is a struggle between managing speed and efficiency with ownership and accountability. Shaikh made the point that ownership needs to be about all actors coming together to shape a vision for self-sustaining development, and Sharma used an example from Sri Lanka to highlight how sustainable development happens when it is demand driven.

Over the next two years we will be periodically taking stock of progress made and where things are lagging in the areas of ownership and accountability. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the community, the Administration, and Capitol Hill on the importance of these pillar issues to improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice.

Strength through Development

May 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from MFAN Executive Committee Member and Accountability Working Group Co-Chair Diana Ohlbaum.

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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.

At Global Forum, Feed the Future Reflects on Progress after Four Years

May 22nd, 2014
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This week USAID hosted the first-ever Feed the Future Global Forum, a 3-day event bringing together stakeholders and partners from around the world to discuss progress made and challenges faced in the fight to end global poverty and hunger.

To coincide with the kickoff of the forum, USAID released the 2014 Feed the Future Progress Report on Monday, which looks at what the initiative has achieved in the four years since it was launched. The report touts that in 2013 alone the initiative reached nearly 7 million smallholder farmers and helped to save 12.5 million children from the threat of hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. In addition, over the last four years Feed the Future has leveraged billions of dollars in investments focused on agriculture and nutrition.

The forum featured addresses from MFAN Honorary Co-Chair and Former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, MFAN Executive Committee Member and President of Bread for the World David Beckmann, and USAID Administrator Raj Shah. Both Senator Lugar and David Beckmann took the opportunity to discuss the importance of – and urgency for –reforming U.S. international food assistance. See below for excerpts from their speeches.

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“I am pleased with the direction and progress achieved by Feed the Future, and applaud your emphasis on such core components as women and smallholder farmers. We will not end chronic hunger without ensuring that women and other smallholders have greater access to technology, credit, extension services, land tenure rights, advanced seeds and other components that large-scale farmers take for granted. But in the context of domestic politics, further thought must be given to improving Congressional support for the program and for global food security efforts, in general. The prospects of any unauthorized program become uncertain with the change of administrations. Moreover, we have seen in recent Congressional actions how vulnerable initiatives that benefit global food security can be. The recent step by the House of Representatives to increase the current Cargo Preference requirement on food from 50 percent to 75 percent could prevent timely food assistance from reaching millions of desperate people. It is important that the Senate remove this provision, both to preserve the lives at risk, and to avoid damage to U.S. leadership on food security.” – Senator Richard G. Lugar (Ret.)

“U.S. food aid does huge good in the world, but you all understand that we are wasting a lot of taxpayer dollars by requiring that nearly all the food come from this country and that it be shipped by a few U.S.-flag shippers. We won some reform in this year’s farm bill, but in other legislation the subsidized shippers managed to increase their subsidies. The net effect is that 1.4 million fewer people every year will receive U.S. food aid. These are among the most desperate people in the world. The House’s version of the Coast Guard bill would give these few shippers yet more money and take away food aid from another 2 million hungry people. This is outrageous, and we need to act together – right now – to roll back what Congress has done and instead achieve reform along the lines of what the President or the Royce-Engels bill have proposed. Those proposals would get food assistance to more hungry people, improve the nutritional quality of the assistance, and provide additional support to farmers in low-income countries – all at zero cost to U.S. taxpayers.” — David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World

“Feed the Future was not just the commitment of money, but of a new approach. Instead of merely providing food aid in times of crises, we were applying a new model to turn agriculture into a business—one that especially worked for women. Instead of trying to work everywhere at once, we chose partners selectively, based on their own commitments to policy reforms and willingness to invest in agriculture. In fact, since 2010, we have phased out agricultural programs in more than 30 countries to focus on just 19 where we can have the biggest impact. Four years later, I am proud to join you today to launch the 2014 Feed the Future Progress Report that delivers on the President’s commitment to the world.” — USAID Administrator Raj Shah