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Glazing Eyes But Warming Hearts

December 22nd, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Diana Ohlbaum, Co-Chair of MFAN’s Accountability Working Group


No, it’s not a hot toddy – it’s the State Department’s Foreign Assistance Data Review, quietly released last week.  Unless you’re a data geek, this is not a report you’ll want to curl up in front of the fire with.  It’s the kind of thing that makes one’s eyes glaze over, but a sober assessment leads to the conclusion that this is a big win for MFAN in 2015.  Here’s why:

First, a wide range of participants from nearly every regional and functional bureau in the State Department recognized that existing systems are not being fully utilized to track or report on foreign assistance programs.  The group met monthly to map out the current processes and identify quick fixes and long-term solutions.  Just getting people to see the lack of transparency as a problem and come up with a plan for addressing it is a victory in itself.

Second, the report came up with key recommendations for advancing State’s ability to monitor and manage its own programs as well as to report on them more comprehensively and transparently.  The first recommendation (designated as Phase II, since the first phase was the review itself) is to develop a standardized process for managing and tracking all foreign assistance projects across their full lifecycle, and allow for accurate reporting.  This work has already begun, and is expected to take three to four months.

The next recommendation is to do exactly what MFAN and Publish What You Fund have been advocating: developing “a costed management plan and timeline for the necessary system changes to supplement the business process improvement in managing foreign assistance.”  English translation: they will figure out what kinds of computer upgrades are needed, how long this will take, and what it will cost.  This step, Phase III, is expected to take six to seven months.

The final stage will be to implement whatever new computer systems and processes are needed to enable State to fulfill all its reporting commitments, including the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and make more data-driven decisions.  The Office of Foreign Assistance Resources hopes to put this in motion before the end of the administration.

Ultimately, the breakthrough here isn’t that State now feels obligated to be more transparent.  It’s not that they are doing MFAN a favor or have buckled under to MFAN’s pressure.  The significance of this review is that the State Department has begun to understand that they need accurate, comprehensive, reliable, comparable and timely data in order to fulfill their own, internal responsibilities to oversee, manage and implement aid effectively.  And once they are truly invested in producing good quality data for their own uses, it will be a lot easier to get them to share it with other stakeholders, who can verify it and provide feedback.

I’m not certain that the Foreign Assistance Data Review would have occurred without MFAN’s urging and encouragement.  But it does appear that State’s heart is in this now, and that brings great comfort and cheer to all of us in the holiday season.

Making U.S. Foreign Aid Not-So-Foreign: Taking Stock of Our Aid Transparency Progress

December 21st, 2015
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See below for a guest post by Dennis Vega, Managing Director for Planning, Performance, & Systems at the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, U.S. Department of State. This is the second post on the topic of transparency for our ACCOUNTdown Dialogue Series.


The end of 2015 marks an important milestone for the U.S. government’s efforts to increase foreign aid transparency: in 2011 on the eve of the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, the U.S. pledged to publish foreign aid data in the internationally agreed upon standard with a goal for providing comprehensive data for the available elements by the end of 2015. This pledge was not a matter of ceremony – we believe that open government leads to better government and, by extension, aid transparency has the potential to change lives. The U.S. is committed to increasing transparency and the quality of data to help recipient governments manage aid, empower citizens, and support data-driven development. By making our own government more transparent, we are applying fundamental principles of our foreign policy – openness and accountability – at home, as well as abroad.

Since the fourth High Level Forum in 2011, the U.S. government has made more data open to the public than ever before.  The State Department coordinates across more than 20 U.S. government agencies to make foreign assistance data publicly available on and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) registry. Originally built with one data set in 2011, the data on now represents 98 percent of the U.S. foreign assistance portfolio – over $30 billion of annual programming. And, vast improvements have been made in the quality and comprehensiveness of the data. In 2016, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to link U.S. foreign assistance dollars to results at the country level by running analyses on a single data set!

In the early days of our efforts, there was a great need to educate some federal agencies on the value of aid transparency; among many other demands on staff time and resources, working towards aid transparency was often seen as something that would be nice to do – but not a priority. Over the past five years, agencies have evolved in their stance of the value of transparency. Now, rather than being seen as a mandate, agencies are now coming to the team to discuss ways to improve data quality. We are encouraged by these conversations and will continue to foster them.

While there is much to celebrate, this journey has not been without its challenges, and we acknowledge the U.S. will fall short of its goal to fully publish foreign aid data to IATI at the end of this year.  While the agencies on represent 98 percent of all foreign assistance, we do not have complete data sets for any of the 10 agencies. These gaps are due to IT system limitations, a variety of business models, and resource constraints. Aid transparency is a significant priority for the U.S. government, but efforts to increase our data must compete against other pressing and immediate issues each agency manages. Difficult trade-offs have to occur between deploying resources to address urgent global challenges and allocating resources for aid transparency improvements.

Furthermore, business models and budget processes within the U.S. government will continue to fall short of the full IATI standard.  IATI requests budget forecasts for three years, but the U.S. government only produces single year budgets. In other cases the IATI standard requests detailed information falling into the category of personally identifiable information the U.S. government doesn’t release.

Finally, as timely reporting is desirable, we need to automate data collection. This requires the use of systems which were never designed to collect and report the level of detail required by our transparency commitments. This disconnect between the data we want and the data we have is our biggest challenge. Changing systems or building new systems is costly and lengthy. It is important for us to acknowledge these challenges and have an open dialogue with the community.

Nevertheless, we are committed to increasing transparency, and the recent public release of the State Department’s first-ever Foreign Assistance Data Review findings and recommendations document illustrates this commitment. The recommendations in this review will improve the Department’s ability to use data for informed decision-making and help meet transparency commitments.

We know there is more to be done, and we have set the wheels in motion on several initiatives to accelerate progress in 2016. We launched our toolkit to assist agencies who are not yet reporting, and we are working with the Office of Management and Budget to develop a comprehensive, standard data inventory for all agencies.

For the first time, the 2015 U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government included a commitment to engage in selective capacity building efforts to promote foreign assistance data use.  Recommendations on how to implement this commitment will be drawn from USAID’s Aid Transparency Country Pilot Assessments released in May 2015.  At the State Department, we are engaged in several efforts to promote data usage. Through the Department of State’s Public Private Partnership with universities, the Diplomacy Lab, we recently completed a three month project with students at the University of California-San Diego and the University of Notre Dame on improving usability of the data on The findings and recommendations will directly guide our improvement efforts in 2016. We are also working through the Department’s Office of eDiplomacy to better use technology to engage with stakeholders globally.

These accomplishments and subsequent dialogue would not have been possible without the support and encouragement from the aid transparency community. Their advocacy is instrumental in advancing the policy agenda and raising awareness to senior leaders across agencies.  The community pushes us to rapidly improve and constructively works with us to make advances. The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) advocacy and Publish What You Fund’s technical support is critical. The community’s expertise, experience, and perspective are key inputs into our decision-making process. Through our consultative partnership, we have improved our approach to transparency.

We are proud of the many advances in our aid transparency journey and are learning from the obstacles that emerge along the way. As global actors come together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years, our collective commitment to data-driven decision-making will be essential to solving globally pressing issues and measuring progress. Whether you are member of the advocacy community, an implementer of foreign assistance, an academic, or a government employee, we all believe that open government leads to better government. So we’ll continue to push together to do more, faster, to make our government better.

Letter to USAID Administrator Gayle Smith: Priorities for 2016

December 21st, 2015
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December 18, 2015

The Honorable Gayle Smith
U.S. Agency for International Development
Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, D.C. 20523
Attn: Ms. Michele Sumilas

Dear Gayle:

On behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), we wish to congratulate you once again on your confirmation as Administrator of USAID. We stand ready to work with you to confront the numerous development challenges and humanitarian crises around the world, and to ensure the reforms initiated by this Administration are achieved and institutionalized for future leaders.

To solidify the Obama Administration’s global development legacy and to achieve its ambitious goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030, we hope you will urgently prioritize the following:

1.Establish Public Metrics of Sustainability and Institutionalize Local Solutions: High-level commitment is needed to deepen the agency’s work on sustainability and country ownership. USAID’s Local Solutions initiative is an important step to advance inclusive country strategies and programs that work with local partners to build country ownership. Embedding this approach across the agency will require both your political leadership and the establishment of agency-wide metrics of sustainability and country ownership. MFAN’s Metrics for Implementing Country Ownership paper and a recent GAO report on Local Solutions (GAO-15-377) both called for metrics to assess partner-country capacity, ownership, and sustainability. USAID reported that it would complete such indicators by December 31, 2015.

  • We urge you to champion Local Solutions and ensure that USAID publicly releases and implements agency-wide indicators of sustainability and country ownership, so that progress in these areas can be evaluated.

2.Catalyze Local Resources and Support Local Priorities

Where countries are willing, United States assistance can be transformational: encouraging them to generate more of their own revenue and spend it on development priorities, paving a path toward long-term poverty reduction and self-reliance. Recognizing the catalytic impact of such investment, at the 2015 Financing for Development Conference the United States committed to doubling support for public sector domestic resource mobilization over the next three years.

  • To ensure the success of this effort, President Obama’s FY17 budget request should put the U.S. on a transparent path to fulfill its Addis Tax Initiative commitment to double total support for public sector domestic resource mobilization in three years. This should be: a cross-agency effort, with a funding baseline for doubling that includes USAID, Treasury, and PEPFAR; consistent with MFAN’s principles of public sector domestic resource mobilization; and accomplished without establishing additional earmarks or directives.
  • In keeping with the President’s development vision outlined in the Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) #6, USAID should work with the aid community and Congress to reduce earmarks and directives and better align investments with country priorities.

3.Fulfill Major Commitments to Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability

USAID has made significant gains in the amount and quality of data published under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), including developing and approving initial phases of a management plan to achieve full compliance with the international standard. Yet the ultimate value of the data is in its use.  USAID should build on its early steps – a three-country pilot study and an expanded foreign aid transparency commitment in the new U.S. National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership – and deepen efforts to understand how foreign aid data is being used and how to increase its utility.

  • We encourage you to continue to prioritize improvements in transparency by supporting the bipartisan, bicameral “Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act” (H.R. 3766/S. 2184) that was recently approved unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
  • We urge you to invest in the capacity of local actors to utilize data and by raising awareness of the importance of local data use among country counterparts and within USAID missions themselves.  Making data available in the official language of the partner country is one important step that will enhance the usability of the data.

4.Institutionalize Policy and Budget Functions

Much of USAID’s recent policy dynamism can be attributed to the restoration of its policy and budget functions under this Administration. Institutionalizing these core structures is vital to the President’s goal of reestablishing “the United States as the global leader on international development” and his “long-term commitment to rebuilding USAID as the U.S. Government’s lead development agency and as the world’s premier development agency,” as outlined in PPD-6.

  • We encourage you to more deeply embed the policy and budget functions of USAID.

5.Continue to Prioritize Food Aid Reform

Reform of U.S. food assistance that enables greater reach and impact would be a profound addition to the legacy of this Administration.

  • We urge you to make U.S. food aid reform one of your top budget and legislative priorities, and strengthen engagement with Capitol Hill. Congressional support is critical to making food assistance more effective at reaching millions of additional vulnerable people worldwide.

You, better than anyone, understand how important these initiatives are to USAID being an effective development agency, an objective we hold in common. Please let us know if and how we can be of assistance.

With warm regards,

George Ingram
MFAN Co-Chair
Brookings Institution

Carolyn Miles
MFAN Co-Chair
Save the Children

Connie Veillette
MFAN Co-Chair
The Lugar Center

Year in Review: A Look Back at Aid Reform in 2015

December 18th, 2015
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As 2015 comes to a close and we head into the final year of the Obama Administration, we want to take some time to reflect on all that we as a network have accomplished these last twelve months to move the needle on U.S. aid reform. With your energy and support, we continued to push on our pillar issues of accountability and country ownership and the policy priorities we laid out in these areas in our paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond.

MFAN’s Continued Work to Strengthen Accountability & Country Ownership

MFAN hit the ground running in 2015 on accountability and country ownership. MFAN partner Save the Children released a new report early in the year tracking USAID’s Local Solutions initiative in six countries. MFAN and Brookings hosted an event to highlight the findings of a new policy paper from the MCC, Principles into Practice: Transparency. Continuing on the transparency and data use track, MFAN in partnership with AidData, the State Department, and USAID hosted Do More With Data: Moving U.S. Government Aid Transparency Forward, an event that brought together internal and external drivers of USG foreign aid transparency to explore ongoing and new efforts to make data more accessible.

This year we welcomed Dr. Patricia Morris to the MFAN Executive Committee. Pat took over as the new President of Women Thrive Worldwide, a longtime MFAN partner, in January. We also welcomed a new staff member in 2015, as Stephanie Cappa joined the MFAN hub as our Senior Government Relations Manager.

Heading into the Spring, MFAN and Devex launched Reform for Results, an online series to engage the broader development community on progress made and emerging opportunities on MFAN’s policy priorities from The Way Forward. The series featured a video interview with U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx, OpEds from MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette, Honorary Co-Chair Senator Richard Lugar (Ret.), and Executive Committee members Ben Leo, Tom Hart, and Tessie San Martin.

MFAN’s Country Ownership Working Group released a policy brief outlining recommendations for how to better measure country ownership, which, for example, can be applied to USAID’s Local Solutions initiative. The paper was met with enthusiasm by USAID, as they are currently working on developing and integrating new metrics into their ownership work. The Country Ownership Working Group also welcomed Save the Children’s Nora O’Connell and Oxfam’s Greg Adams as its new co-chairs in 2015, following on the great leadership of Tessie San Martin of Plan and Rodney Bent.

In July, MFAN launched its new ACCOUNTdown to 2017 campaign to track progress made toward strengthening the accountability and country ownership of U.S. foreign aid. The campaign will take stock of where Congress and the Administration are in meeting their reform commitments and outline further steps that can be made before the end of the 114th Congress and the Obama Administration. Also in July, coinciding with the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, MFAN released its Principles of Public Sector Domestic Resources Mobilization, outlining how the U.S. government can effectively help partner countries mobilize domestic resources for development.

As part of our continuing work to highlight MFAN’s policy priorities and engage with the Obama Administration, the Co-Chairs sent letters to OMB Director Shaun Donovan, outlining our priorities and how the Administration can make progress on them in its final year, and MCC CEO Dana Hyde, outlining our recommendations for the MCC’s forthcoming five-year strategic plan. In addition, MFAN Honorary Co-Chair The Honorable Jim Kolbe testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the value of the MCC.

The Obama Administration’s Second-to-last Year

Early in the year, President Obama demonstrated his enduring commitment to development and effective foreign assistance in his State of the Union address and, following shortly after, his FY16 budget request. In the State of the Union address, the President called for a “more effective global effort” to combat development challenges like the Ebola crisis. The budget request included a number of provisions to help advance reform, including additional flexibility for food aid, a funding boost for the MCC, and an increase in USAID’s Operating Expenses budget.

Also early this year, USAID Administrator Raj Shah stepped down from his post after leading the agency for five productive years. Administrator Shah was a long-time champion for effective development, spearheading efforts such as USAID Forward, the Local Solutions initiative, and the establishment of USAID’s evaluation policy. In April, we released an MFAN-led community sign-on letter calling for a new USAID Administrator. Just two weeks later the announcement was made that MFAN co-founder Gayle Smith was nominated.  As the community anxiously awaited Gayle’s confirmation, MFAN organized another community sign-on letter in June to urge the Senate to confirm her as USAID Administrator.

At the end of April, the much anticipated second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review was released. We were pleased to see the document focus on transparent and accountable governance and the better use and analysis of data, and the emphasis on building internal capacity at State and USAID in the area of monitoring and evaluation. We look forward to continuing to work with the State Department on the implementation of this QDDR in the New Year.

This fall marked the much-anticipated launch of the Sustainable Development Goals at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. President Obama strongly endorsed the ambitious in his address during UNGA.

Foreign Aid Reform on Capitol Hill

The year was also an active time in the fight to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective in Congress. This spring the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a landmark hearing on food aid reform, convened by SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD).  The hearing was an opportunity to highlight the importance of legislative efforts like the Food for Peace Reform Act, introduced by Senate champions Bob Corker and Chris Coons (D-DE) earlier in the year, and to make the case for why the current systems to needs to be improved in order to deliver more for hungry people around the world. To capitalize on the moment, MFAN, as part of a broad coalition of international development organizations, signed on to a statement of support for food aid reform.

In October, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2015 was introduced in the House by Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA), and in the Senate by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). Just a few weeks after introduction, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up and approved the bills. MFAN and InterAction also organized a community sign-on letter in support of the bill and the MFAN Co-Chairs sent a letter to Secretary Kerry urging his support, recognizing that the State Department has been a hurdle to getting the bill passed in previous congresses.

Meanwhile, the Senate confirmed Gayle Smith as the new USAID Administrator in November, seven months after being nominated. MFAN and our partners were pleased that the Senate finally took action to fill this important position.

Onward to 2016

We are rounding out 2015 on a high note, as the House of Representatives recently unanimously passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. In the New Year, we hope to see the Senate take similar action so that we can see this legislation enacted. We look forward to a busy 2016 as MFAN and our partners continue to push Congress and the Administration to prioritize accountability and country ownership to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective and sustainable. Early next year we will be holding our next public check-in on our ACCOUNTdown to 2017 campaign and will continue to update our ACCOUNTdown Dialogue Series, so stay tuned!


MFAN Community Reacts to House Passage of Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act

December 10th, 2015
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Less than three months after being introduced, the House of Representatives passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 3766). This bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA) would codify important reforms to ensure that U.S. agencies involved in foreign assistance are doing rigorous and consistent monitoring and evaluation and are making comprehensive, timely, and comparable aid data publicly available. MFAN and our partners are pleased to see both the House and Senate taking swift action to move this important bill through.

See below for a roundup of reactions from around the MFAN community to the news of House passage, and also check out blogs from Oxfam and ONE.

MFAN: MFAN commends the bill sponsors Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA) for their continued leadership on aid effectiveness and their effort to see this bill signed into law. We also thank Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) for moving swiftly to pass this important legislation.

The Lugar Center’s Senator Richard G. Lugar (Ret.): More than ever the expenditure of every U.S. taxpayer dollar must be effectively spent in the development space, not just for taxpayer accountability, but also for greatest impact for those receiving our assistance.  Legislation requiring increased accountability of these funds, both by requiring greater transparency and strengthened systems for monitoring and evaluating these programs, takes an important step in ensuring effectiveness. I applaud the U.S. House of Representatives in recognizing the important role that they play in bringing greater transparency and accountability to U.S. foreign assistance and congratulate my former colleague, Congressman Poe, on his continued leadership of this important policy.

USGLC’s Liz Schrayer: We applaud the House of Representatives for unanimously passing important legislation today that continues our efforts to ensure the accountability and effectiveness of our nation’s foreign assistance programs. This bipartisan legislation will further strengthen America’s global leadership and advance our interests and values around the world. We urge the Senate to join the House by passing the companion legislation sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin before the end of the year.

Bread for the World’s David Beckmann: Making all U.S. foreign assistance more transparent and accountable will help certify that our tax money is used efficiently,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “This legislation is especially important now that the global community has embraced new global goals that would virtually end hunger and poverty by 2030. It’s clear that more openness and transparency are key to helping the U.S. achieve better results and lead the charge of ending global hunger and poverty.

Oxfam’s David Saldivar: Even in these highly partisan times, Congress today has found that transparency in foreign aid is in everyone’s interest. We hope the Senate quickly follows suit since greater transparency and accountability in our foreign aid will help people in developing countries do more to lead their own development, and use US help more effectively to fight poverty.

InterAction: This bipartisan bill makes U.S. foreign assistance more effective and accountable, and has had strong support in both the House and the Senate under the leadership of Sens. Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin and Reps. Ted Poe and Gerry Connolly. In November, the bill was unanimously passed by both the House Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. InterAction thanks the House for moving quickly to pass this important legislation that is supported by a coalition of more than 35 NGOs, and looks forward to working with the Senate to pass the bill as soon as possible.