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What We’re Hoping To See In The Next Release Of USAID Data

October 15th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from Laia Grino, InterAction’s Senior Manager for Transparency, Accountability, and Results. Laia writes about improvements InterAction would like to see in terms of USAID’s data for the fourth quarter of the year before its posted on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. The post originally appeared here.


The fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013 (FY2013) recently came to an end. This means that over the next few weeks, USAID will be working to put together its fourth quarter data for public release through the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. This summer, USAID posted information on more than 50,000 financial transactions for the first three quarters of FY2013. As we noted at the time, though the data wasn’t perfect, having information at that level of detail was a welcome and noteworthy development. We very much believe in the aid transparency mantra: “Publish what you can, improve over time.” In keeping with that spirit of continuous progress, below we offer some recommendations for what USAID could do to make its next data release more useful.

1.       Use actual award titles: Too many of the award titles on the Dashboard look like this—“LOC Grant,” “The purpose of this modification is to…,” “Incremental funding to…”—instead of this, “Time to Learn Project (EDC).” As one colleague put it, these are more like entries in USAID’s checkbook than actual award titles that match how USAID otherwise presents its work. A simple way to illustrate this? Google “LOC Grant” and see if you can find more information about that award. Google “Time to Learn, EDC” and this detailed page from EDC’s website is the first search result.

2.       Include award descriptions: These award titles are even more problematic when you consider that there are no award descriptions. This means that often the only fields that give you any sense of what an award involves are category and sector (e.g., Education and Social Services > Basic Education). This is not enough. As one potential user of USAID data noted, people need information on project objectives or even intended results. Better descriptions with these details do exist (on USAID Mission websites, this interactive map on the main USAID site, etc.). Though easier said than done, these detailed descriptions need to make it onto the Dashboard.

3.       Provide total award amounts, not just obligations: The data USAID released usually includes the amount of funding obligated and spent at different points in time. Without total award amounts, however, it is difficult to put these individual transactions in context. It is useful to know that USAID obligated $100,000 to Organization X in the third quarter of FY2013. It would be even more useful to know whether that is out of a total award amount of $1 million or $100 million. Again, this is information that is available elsewhere.

4.       Start adding sub-national geographic information: Happily, this is something USAID is already working on. In 2012, it provided funding to a group of organizations to establish the AidData Center for Development Policy, part of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Among other things, this center will work with USAID’s GeoCenter to geocode aid projects, enabling “USAID and the broader global development community to more effectively target, coordinate, deliver, and evaluate their aid investments.” Once this information is incorporated into USAID’s data, it will also enable government officials in partner countries to see how much aid funding is going to their constituencies and help civil society hold governments accountable.

There are other improvements USAID could make. These range from the seemingly nitpicky but actually crucial (like making sure that unique identifiers for organizations are present, consistent and accurate), to the more obviously important (like providing information on results). The way in which data is currently presented on the Dashboard is also an obstacle to use. Still, making these changes would go a long ways to making this data useful to all stakeholders. And that is, after all, the point.

The (Re-)Birth of the Rethinking US Development Policy Program

September 9th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from Ben Leo, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. This post outlines CGD’s new Rethinking US Development Policy program–formerly the Rethinking US Foreign Assistance program–which will explore the full range of development tools the US can use to achieve greater aid effectiveness. This post originally appeared on CGD’s blog.


The day of reckoning has finally arrived. The Rethinking US Foreign Assistance’s director, Sarah Jane Staats, has officially left the building. All of us are anticipating amazing things from her at the MCC; just as she delivered during her time at CGD.

I now have the humbling opportunity to take the reins of this well-established and influential program. [Along with the unenviable task of meeting the high standards of those who rode before – Sheila Herrling, Connie Veillette, and Sarah Jane.] Thankfully, I am inheriting a wonderful team that Sarah Jane built, including Sarah Rose (formerly of the MCC and USAID) and Will McKitterick.

I arrive at this task just as US development policy is approaching a crossroads. The days of expanding, altruistic U.S. aid budgets are gone. The US political environment demands value, impact, and strategic relevance. Beyond our borders, the development finance landscape has changed even more dramatically. Many developing economies have boomed over the past decade – along with the availability of domestic revenues and private capital. Developing countries are much less interested in aid than they are in U.S. investment, trade, and technology. This means that grants have already become a smaller tool for executing US development policy (and foreign policy too). At the same time, the US will continue to use foreign assistance to confront fragility in places like Haiti and Pakistan. As my colleagues have pointed out, it’s essential that the US government does a much, much better job at this (see here, here, and here).

To reflect the changing times, the Rethink program will change as well. I will be taking a more expansive view – broadening the program’s scope from a singular focus on U.S. foreign assistance to a wider assessment of U.S. development policy tools. In doing this, I will be drawing upon the Center’s immense in-house expertise across a full range of issues.

My colleagues and I will be launching the new Rethinking U.S. Development Policy program (and revamped webpages) soon. While some things will change, we will continue with CGD’s tried and true monitoring of US aid programs. We’ll be closely watching things such as the MCC , Power Africa, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, and Feed the Future. Rethink’s periodic monitoring products play an important role in the broader policy debate, and I look forward to continuing them in the future.

But beyond this, here’s a sneak peek of the kinds of big questions that we’re kicking around. Please let me know if you have early reactions, suggestions, or ideas.

  • What Does the Growth of Developing Countries’ Domestic Resources Mean For US Policy? According to IMF data, African governments’ domestic revenues (excluding grants) are projected to reach $375 billion next year, up from roughly $90 billion a decade ago. All but three African countries have witnessed at least a doubling of domestically mobilized revenues. What does this mean for a US development model that is still largely based on being a service provider of last resort?
  • How Can US Policy Better Leverage Private Investment Flows? The Obama Administration’s most recent initiatives – such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Power Africa – aim to unlock the development power of private investment. Yet, the preeminent US investment agency (OPIC) remains under-staffed and constrained by outdated authorities. Beyond OPIC, private sector development tools are scattered across countless US agencies. The new Unleashing OPIC proposal from Todd Moss, Beth Schwanke, and me aims to improve this dynamic. Are there other US policy tools that should be pursued more aggressively as well?
  • Has The Time Finally Come For A More Creative Trade Policy and Facilitation Agenda?  The Clinton Administration launched AGOA. The Bush Administration completed free trade agreements with 17 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Since then, US trade policy has been largely stuck in neutral (although Congress did finally approve agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea). Yet, there is an impressive new US Trade Representative and the need to reauthorize preference programs like AGOA soon. Will the US seize this moment with a creative new trade facilitation and trade policy agenda for developing countries (as my colleague Kim Elliott and others have urged)?
  • Does U.S. Assistance Align With What Beneficiaries Care Most About?  Public attitude surveys in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa consistently suggest that people’s most pressing concerns relate to: (i) jobs and income; (ii) economic management; (iii) infrastructure (in Africa); and (iv) crime and security (in Latin America). How much should US policymakers be seeking out and reflecting these widely held local priorities when developing engagement strategies?

Please let me know what you think.  My colleagues and I aim to continue using the Rethink program’s great platform for exchanging ideas and views. I feel honored and humbled for the opportunity to lead the new Rethink into the future.

Planting the Seeds of Sustainability in South Sudan

August 26th, 2013
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See below for a guest post on how USAID is using cost-benefit analysis to measure the impact of development programs and, ultimately, use the data to make these programs more sustainable. This post originally appeared on USAID’s Impact blog and the State Department’s Dipnote blog.


In the world’s newest nation of South Sudan, the legacy of four decades of civil war continues to challenge efforts to gather reliable current statistics on health, education, the economy and other factors. USAID and other development partners are seeking to help the South Sudanese people build a robust and resilient economy. Key to that effort is modernizing and expanding the agriculture sector. Because decades of war often forced people from their land, South Sudan as a whole lost much of its agricultural knowledge base. As a result, most of South Sudan’s food is imported, despite significant arable land, plentiful water and good quality soil. In spite of the challenges, most South Sudanese are still involved in agriculture, typically as subsistence farmers producing crops such as maize, sorghum, cassava and groundnuts. Production levels are low, however, and even farmers in the most fertile region—the “Greenbelt” that crosses the three Equatoria states—are affected by a number of adverse conditions, including poor quality seeds, deficient farming equipment, lack of roads to get their goods to market and post-harvest losses due to inadequate or nonexistent storage.

A farmer inspects his crops. Photo credit: Sait Mboob

A farmer inspects his crops. Photo credit: Sait Mboob

To examine the effects of USAID’s assistance in South Sudan’s agriculture sector since 2012, a USAID team led by economist Paul Pleva recently completed a cost-benefit analysis of the $26 million in USAID funds currently being spent annually in South Sudan in support of the Feed the Future Initiative.  Part of the analysis examined two different techniques for improving crop yields, both being promoted under USAID’s Food, Agribusiness and Rural Markets (FARM) project.  Begun in 2010, the FARM project seeks to boost agricultural growth through improved inputs, strengthen market linkages, improve the conditions for private sector investment and improve infrastructure to facilitate trade.

Pleva analyzed the two techniques being implemented through the FARM project to improve crop yields. One technique required relatively expensive farming inputs, but promised potentially dramatic yield increases.  A second technique focused on more simple improvements such as improved seeds, proper weeding and seed row spacing for more modest yield increases.  The team observed actual outcomes produced by the two techniques and considered the sustainability of each.

Pleva led a collaborative effort to collect data from multiple sources, identify inconsistencies and compare the quality of those sources. He used inexpensive technologies such as Google Apps to ensure that USAID implementing partners around the world could provide input.

Cheaper farming techniques improve farming yields and result in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers. Photo credit: Sait Mboob

Cheaper farming techniques improve farming yields and result in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers. Photo credit: Sait Mboob

After comparing the results, the USAID team found that of the two interventions, the cheaper technique of improving farming yields resulted in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers and provided a much better chance of sustainability after the project ends.  The evidence for this finding was significant and, as a result, USAID turned the focus of the project toward the cheaper and more sustainable intervention.

Small sums can generate big returns—in this case for both farmers and USAID. USAID made a modest investment of resources—the staff time of a small team—to conduct the cost-benefit analysis, and in doing so, increased the development impact of taxpayer dollars significantly. Farmers in South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, stand to benefit economically from the findings of this analysis—a potential path out of poverty.

By using economic analysis to prove that simple techniques can best assist South Sudan’s farmers, USAID had avoided an all too common trap in development—unsustainable projects that fall apart when donors conclude a project or cease assistance to a sector or country. Lessons like this one not only save money in the short-term, but by helping people to increase their household income and food security they also decrease the likelihood that emergency funds will be needed to help these communities in the future.


New CAP Report on Promoting Private-Sector Development Solutions

August 23rd, 2013
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When it comes to development financing from the U.S., the amount from the government has been steadily shrinking in proportion to the rising amount from the private sector. We have seen this shift occur over the last two decades, and today development financing from the U.S. government accounts for just 13 percent compared to 87 percent from the private sector.

In a new paper from the Center for American Progress, The Role of the U.S. Government in Promoting Private-Sector Development Solutions, CAP Chair John Podesta and MFAN Principal John Norris examine this “seismic shift” and how it should affect the mindset and policies of both public and private development practitioners. They note that the share of development financing coming from the U.S. government will only continue to decline as other sources of funding such as private sector flows and domestic resource mobilization grow. In order to adapt to this change, the U.S. government must become more flexible and realize that its funding needs to be complementary of the ever-expanding crop of new donors.

There is a growing recognition that public-private partnerships (PPPs), or as Podesta and Norris note, what should really be seen as private-public partnerships, are now more important than ever. This is evident from a global perspective, as it has been a core part of discussions around the post-2015 development agenda, as well as from a U.S. perspective, as the Obama administration highlighted PPPs in the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development released in 2010. Since then, the Obama Administration has embraced PPPs creating initiatives such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the Child Survival Call to Action, and most recently, Power Africa.

Despite these positive steps to embrace the changing development landscape, especially the growing role of the private sector, Podesta and Norris say that U.S. development policies and programs have not yet “sufficiently evolved.” They make several key recommendations as to how the U.S. can become a better development partner, including:

  • Apply constraints to growth analyses on a regional basis, noting the work of the Partnership for Growth program;
  • Work with multilateral and private sector partners to spur investment in post-conflict and transition countries; and
  • Support and fund “early-stage, market-based solutions.”

Local Ownership: Who, What, and How

August 15th, 2013
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See below for excerpts from a piece by Melissa Kaplan, advocacy manger for aid reform and effectiveness at InterAction. Kaplan writes about local ownership and the recent report from Mercy Corps that uses extensive field research and interviews to examine how local ownership is being implemented–ultimately providing recommendations to USAID for how the agency can improve its efforts. This post originally appeared on Devex.


“It was noted that while the United States can deliver “stuff” to poor people around the globe, it cannot deliver what is most needed: power and accountability. Local people and local civil society need to have a real stake in and ultimately be responsible for their community’s own development. This is what local leadership needs to be about.”

“Another idea that emerged is that it’s important to think about a whole-of-society approach for building local ownership. It isn’t enough to build the capacity of a few local organizations — efforts should be put into building vibrant local civil society platforms. There is also a need to help foster better enabling environments in places where space for civil society is restricted. However, while we should engage with new and emerging local actors, it was pointed out that we should keep in mind that the “usual suspects” do bring a lot to the table, including political accountability that may not always exist with others.”

“Local ownership is critically important in order to improve aid programs’ effectiveness and to give local people a voice and a stake in their own future. It is essential not to view local ownership solely as engagement between the U.S. government and foreign governments, but to encompass the whole of local civil society. USAID Forward is making progress in this direction, and the Mercy Corps study shines a valuable light on what gaps still remain and some steps the U.S. government and our community could take to more fully realize the goal of local ownership.”