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Incentivizing Transparency

September 24th, 2014
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Please see below for a guest post from MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chairs, Diana Ohlbaum and Lori Rowley. Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rowley is the Director for Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.

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For those of us who seek to improve development effectiveness, the rationale for transparency over foreign assistance spending is obvious.  Knowing what is spent, where and how it is used, and what is achieved is essential for ensuring that governments deliver on their promises – both here in the United States and in developing countries.  Quality data that is timely, comprehensive, accessible and usable is the currency of democratic accountability.

But for those who produce and collect the data, releasing it does not always seem to carry significant benefits.  If knowledge is power, then insider knowledge is concentrated power, and the rewards for sharing it may be less apparent.

To clarify the advantages of transparency for those who are not already convinced of its value, MFAN’s Accountability Working Group has produced a one-pager that explains the key reasons why transparency is important:

  • It improves coordination among U.S. agencies and international donors.
  • It enables partner governments to plan effectively.
  • It reduces administrative burdens and helps meet reporting requirements.
  • It builds stronger, more resilient, and more capable states.
  • It harnesses information that can be used to improve policies, services, and outcomes.

These are just a few of the many reasons why releasing data to the public, and making it as reliable and useful as possible, serves our larger foreign policy and development goals.  But those goals can only be met if those of us in civil society actually use the data to inform our programs, our analysis, and our advocacy.  Thus we offer these recommendations for the larger development community:

1) EXPLORE.  Set aside time to go to www.foreignassistance.gov and www.iatiregistry.org.  Prepare some questions that you’d like to have answered and see what you can find out.

2) SHARE.  It’s shocking how many people and organizations that could benefit from this information don’t even know it exists, here in Washington as well as across the United States and around the world.  Do your part by spreading the word.

3) TRAIN.  For researchers and advocates in the United States and developing countries alike, demonstrations and trainings can be very empowering and can overcome initial anxiety and intimidation about using new tools and technology.

4) PUSH.  Don’t just let the data reside on the internet as a passive resource.  Take the time to extract useful information and analyze, reframe, and repackage it to meet the needs of specific stakeholder communities.  Distribute it in formats that are widely accessible.

5) CREDIT.  Publicly cite the Dashboard and IATI when you use their data for blog posts, articles, research reports, and media stories.  Those who toil at collecting, reviewing and disseminating the data need to know that their hard work has not been in vain.

6) RESPOND.  The Dashboard team at the Department of State openly solicits feedback on the quality, format, and content of the data.  Let them know what works well and what doesn’t at http://www.foreignassistance.gov/web/Contact.aspx.

A tailored U.S. extension adds value, but our work isn’t done yet

August 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Catalina Reyes, Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund.

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When the U.S. made its first foray into the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), it adopted a “whole of government” approach. While there is merit to having various agencies of government speaking with one voice, this also creates problems when it comes to publishing quality data.

We were very encouraged when the U.S. changed course on this and adopted the IATI standard, with a tailored U.S. extension. This is consistent with other donors’ practices and means we’re now all reading from the same page – or at least from the same list of fields.

It might seem like a technical detail, but the U.S. extension is a big step forward, and we want to congratulate the government for using IATI as a basis for agencies’ publication to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.Dashboard image(1)

MCC has already used this new extension to publish to the Dashboard, and we can confirm the data output is identical to the data input. Since the IATI standard is the only globally agreed standard for publishing aid information, it makes sense to use this when requesting information from donor agencies.

Of course, while this is a big step forward, our work is not yet done. Call me a perfectionist, but  I think U.S. data should be among the most detailed and useful of all major donors.

As the Dashboard and the various U.S. agencies continue to work on their commitments made at Busan, our key recommendations for improvements are:

Collect better data. Encourage agencies to input high quality information from the beginning of the project cycle. We know we can’t go back five years ago but USG should inform missions and staff working on information gathering about the changes happening in HQ.

Don’t lump all the data together.Segment aid data by agency, rather than aggregating into a single file per country. This will help to protect the quality of each agency’s data and preserve its integrity. If one agency improves orbreaks its data, it’s clear where the problem lies, and it doesn’t affect other agencies. This is important in encouraging frequent and steady improvements in the data over time.

Smooth the publication process. Automate publication directly to IATI, instead of relying on a manual transfer of data from agencies to foreignassistance.gov. The Dashboard and IATI are now using the same information fields. This means that the Dashboard can consume IATI data. And it should.

Automate generation of IATI data by agencies. Agencies should generate their IATI XML information from their own systems. This should be the goal and encouraged by the Dashboard. This should be a priority for State, USAID and MCC; others such as HHS, USDA and Treasury should then follow suit. We have some specific agency recommendations:

  • USAID should follow MCC’s lead and make sure data generation is as close to systems as possible, thereby likely resulting in higher data quality, bringing skills in-house and making the process sustainable and automated in the medium term. The aim should be to get the basic data right first, and then quickly move on to incorporating the sub-national geo-coding and project documents that are available elsewhere on USAID’s websites.
  • State needs to bring data generation closer to the Department’s own systems and make these able to speak to each other. This means that the data should come straight from the systems and undergo minimal or no manipulation. In doing this State should prioritize basic information such as project titles and dates for remaining projects that don’t have them.
  • PEPFAR should identify its activities as OGAC activities and not just State activities (e.g., identify that it’s OGAC within State Department), as they have different purposes and objectives, and should be a key champion of traceability down the chain of implementers.

There are positive changes happening within U.S. agencies and within the Dashboard and we think the adoption of the IATI standard is an important one. However, more is needed to achieve the Busan deadline of 2015. And the emphasis has to be on the quality of aid information if it is to be really useable by donors, partner countries and other users.

Our 2014 Aid Transparency Index is out soon, with more details about progress in the U.S. and globally. Stay tuned!

Remembering the Contributions of USAID Staff: The Administrator’s Take (Part Two)

August 20th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Peter McPherson, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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I greatly appreciate the very nice comments about my time at USAID and also appreciate the major effort Mr. Norris put into his paper. What the story did not try to do, no doubt in part because of time and resource constraints, was identify by name and contribution the huge number of mostly career people at USAID who made a significant contribution to a country or region. Some of these contributions were part of an administrator’s stated big agenda, but many were unique to a country or region. They came from a commitment at various levels within USAID to get something done to solve a problem.  Inevitably, any such a listing of people and contributions would miss someone, but still what a story it would be.  These people and their collective efforts demonstrate how USAID has changed the world.

I have often wondered how such a history could be put together.  Along with others, Ray Love — a longtime USAID senior official — and I have considered the possibility. We need the history to not only properly thank those who’ve served, but also as an inspiration for the current USAID staff and the development community at large. Everyone needs to learn lessons of what worked in the past. We need that history to help sell Congress and the American people on the importance of continuing to fund USAID.  The agency put together some material for its 50th anniversary, but it was limited to some key stories as opposed to a complete history.  The State Department has an office that tracks and reports on its history and some good material about USAID is there and easily accessible. Of course each year some of the direct knowledge of that history is lost as people who lived it pass away.

We all need to consider how such a complete, living history could be organized and made publicly accessible so that the past and future accomplishments of USAID staff can get the attention they deserve.

The Clashes of the Nineties: The Administrator’s Take

August 13th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from J. Brian Atwood, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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John Norris has performed a service in recounting the highlights of USAID’s history. I am convinced that no organization in the world has contributed as much to development and humanitarian relief. He is correct in characterizing my tenure as tumultuous. But the battle over Senator Helms’ plan to merge with State did not prevent the Agency from taking new initiatives. The Agency got a lot done in those years and we set an agenda that lives to this day.

While I appreciate very much being remembered as the Administrator who saved the Agency, I must point out that no Administrator had as strong a group of appointees and career leaders. As a team we were not the least bit naïve about Capitol Hill politics or State Department pressures. Each of our presidential appointees possessed relevant Washington experience on the Hill, at the State Department, the White House and in politics, in addition to having solid development and/or relief backgrounds. They were supported by career professionals who were anxious to implement reforms to untie red tape.

Those reforms, undertaken in the first two years, are what saved the Agency. We created an operational model that has largely remained in place. We not only eliminated 26 overseas missions, we merged and/or eliminated bureaus in Washington. When one considers where the world of development is today with respect to local ownership, transparency, results measurement and mutual accountability, we were way ahead of our time.

We created a strategic framework for the Agency, narrowing down and rationalizing the principle objectives of the development mission. We flattened out the structure of our overseas missions, creating strategic objective teams who would work with local partners to determine specific goals, even signing agreements with them on how, when and what was to be accomplished. We insisted that results and failures be documented.

Within a few years a local university recognized the Agency as having submitted the most comprehensive annual report as required by the Government Performance and Review act. And the Ferris Commission that had issued a highly critical report on the Agency in the Administration of George H. W. Bush called our reforms “a dramatic transformation.”

We introduced the Office of Transitions Initiatives, filling a gap between our long-term development and relief programs. The concept of the relief-to-reconciliation-to-development continuum continues to characterize the approach adopted in post-conflict and fragile states. Today the United Nations and other bilateral donors have OTI-type units

Our commitment to transparency led to our desire to create a system that would allow our partners, Congress and the public to view real time information about expenditures, results and overall performance. Given Government Accountability Office audits about the Agency’s failure to account for taxpayers’ resources, we had to try to fix our systems; we wanted a system that would do more than just accounting.

Our plans were too ambitious and, like other government agencies (most recently HHS’ Affordable Care Act implementing system!), we could not solve the challenge of attempting to connect a sophisticated system with our over 100 missions. Technology had not yet evolved to make this possible. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I do not regret making the effort. This is exactly the kind of real-time information the International Aid Transparency Initiative encourages donors to provide today.

By far the most difficult issue I faced was the necessity to conduct a reduction in force (RIF) during my tenure. The USAID operations budget was under constant pressure from the Hill, particularly after the other party captured both houses of Congress. Some believe that the effort to modernize our accountability systems caused the RIF. However, we were in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If we didn’t try to fix the auditing systems, our operations budget would have suffered even deeper cuts.

This was the era of the “Contract With America” and the prevailing belief that the end of the Cold War demanded a “peace dividend.” But it was State and USAID, not DoD that suffered the large cuts. In future years DoD would complain that the civilian effort in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was inadequate. State and USAID budgets have grown, but they are still woefully inadequate given the challenges we face today.

Yes, the nineties were tumultuous times, but even so, USAID led the international development community in innovation. We pushed to set goals within the Development Assistance Committee and other donors agreed. These became the Millennium Development Goals. Now the entire world is being held accountable against these standards.

We promoted the idea that democratic governance was an essential aspect of sustainable development. That was controversial in those days. It is now settled development policy.

In the health sector, we led in the fight against malaria by offering evidence of the preventive benefits of bed nets. We promoted the fortification of food with vital vitamins, encouraged the use of disposable syringes and HIV/AIDS testing kits. We were in the forefront of the battle against climate change by helping developing countries modernize power plants to reduce emissions. We began the effort to help vulnerable countries become more resilient.

We also took our case to the American people and were rewarded with dozens of favorable editorials. Our “Lessons Without Borders“ program brought our professionals home to share experiences with domestic anti-poverty workers. We engaged young people in “Operation Day’s Work,” a Norwegian initiative that exposed school children to development programs. We didn’t lie down in the face of political opposition; we took our case to the country.

The story of the nineties for USAID was one of success in adversity. The credit should go to great career professionals and the best set of professional political appointees the Agency has seen (I will only name one here, my friend and former deputy Carol Lancaster who is battling cancer just as she battled everything else life threw her way).

Many of the ideas and concepts that grew out of the nineties are only now seeing their full potential. That would not have happened had USAID been merged into the State Department. The diplomatic and development missions are vitally important, but they operate on different time lines, require different management systems and their professionals have different skill sets. The “clashes” of the nineties brought out these realities. The tensions may remain, but the debate is over.

Statement: MFAN Welcomes African Heads of State to Historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

August 5th, 2014
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MFAN Welcomes African Heads of State to Historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

August 4, 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 extends a warm welcome to the more than 50 African heads of state in Washington this week for the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The historic gathering is a unique opportunity for U.S. and African leaders to strengthen ties and build on the commitments made during President Obama’s trip to Africa last summer as well as those made in the Presidential Policy Directives on Global Development (PPD-6) and on the U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa (PPD-16).

This summit provides a rare but timely forum for discussing the importance of strengthening the way in which we engage with our developing country partners in Africa by prioritizing two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars – accountability through transparency, evaluation and learning; and country ownership of the priorities and resources for, and implementation of, development. MFAN, in conjunction with our partners, will be hosting discussions with government and civil society leaders around these two pillar areas. In addition, we are pleased to see the Obama Administration incorporating strong country ownership principles into a new initiative announced this week to reduce the number of preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths in Africa.

We look forward to further dialogue and advancement in these two critical areas so that U.S. assistance can be more supportive of African efforts to forge a path to prosperity for their citizens.

Please see MFAN’s new policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond, for more information about these pillars.