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The 2013 Aid Transparency Index: MCC Tops The List, But Room For Improvement In U.S. Government

October 31st, 2013
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See below for a guest post from Melissa Kaplan, advocacy manager for aid reform and effectiveness at InterAction. Kaplan writes about the findings from the 2013 Aid Transparency Index, which was released last week. This post originally appeared on InterAction’s website.

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Aid Transparency Index-MCCThe 2013 Aid Transparency Index released this month by Publish What You Fund had good news for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), but not as rosy news for other U.S. agencies.

The MCC—a U.S. foreign assistance agency fighting global poverty—tops this year’s Aid Transparency Index. The index evaluates dozens of aid donors from around the globe on their transparency efforts. MCC snagged the no. 1 spot with an overall rating of 89 percent (out of 100), putting it at the top of the relatively small category of donors rated “very good” on aid transparency. The GAVI Alliance, the UK Department for International Development, and the United Nations Development Program were the other groups that landed in this category.

The report praised the MCC’s progress on transparency, and congratulated the agency for publishing high-quality information in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an initiative working to make information about spending on development easier to access, understand, and use. It also pointed out that all of the MCC’s current Compacts and Threshold Programs are published in IATI XML on MCC’s website, and the information on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard includes planning, obligation, and spending data.

“(MCC) is amongst the biggest improvers in the 2013 Index and is the first U.S. agency to enter the top three,” the report states.

Other U.S. agencies that handle foreign assistance did not fare quite as well in the index. USAID earned a “fair” score of 44 percent, coming in at number 22 out of 67 agencies, while the Department of Defense fell into the “poor” category, with a number 27 ranking and a score of 33 percent. The State Department ranked even worse than DOD with a number 40 ranking and a score of 22 percent. However, it is worth noting that these U.S. agencies have all improved from the 2012 Aid Transparency Index in their overall rankings on the list.

At an event co-hosted by the Brookings Institution and Oxfam launching the Aid Transparency Index Report, David Hall-Matthews, Managing Director of Publish What You Fund, noted that there is still plenty of room for improvement overall among aid donors in terms of transparency, given that the average agency score in the index was only 32.6 percent. He emphasized that it’s not just the quantity but also the quality of data being published that is important.

The broad indicators Publish What You Fund used in its 2013 report methodology were:

  • Commitment to aid transparency—10 percent weight: This measures the extent to which organizations have shown overall commitment to making their aid transparent.
  • Publication at organization level—25 percent weight: This category reflects the availability of general planning and financial information.
  • Publication at activity level—65 percent weight: This category captures the extent to which organizations make available aid information pertaining to specific in-country project activities.

Within these categories, there were 39 more specific indicators used to assess donors’ success, or lack thereof, in sharing data in a transparent manner. Agencies got higher scores for timely information available in an easily usable format (in other words, more credit was given for data published in IATI XML format than for Excel spreadsheets, which in turn get better marks than website or PDF formats).

The report makes three general recommendations:

  • All development actors need to publish more information to IATI. It should be published consistently, cover all relevant IATI fields, and include information beyond financial data.
  • Publishers need to improve their data quality to make it more useful. It needs to be timely, and conform to IATI standard so it can be compared between organizations.
  • Everyone can benefit from using IATI data.

For details, see information on the full Aid Transparency Index 2013 report.

MCC certainly deserves kudos for its excellent showing in this year’s index, and we hope its commendable commitment to transparency will continue. InterAction would also like to see other U.S. foreign assistance agencies take up the challenge to provide more transparent and useful data to the public. While more information being published to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard (particularly by USAID) in recent months is a welcome development, we would still like to see this data be made available in as accessible and user friendly a format as possible. We hope that the 2013 Aid Transparency Report will encourage the administration to keep aid transparency as a priority with an eye on making USAID and the Department of Defense the most improved agencies in the world in next year’s Aid Transparency Index.

 

MCC Named Most Transparent Donor in 2013 Aid Transparency Index

October 24th, 2013
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Today Publish What You Fund released their 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI) and out of the 67 donors worldwide assessed, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) tops the list. The 2013 ATI is the third annual index, and this year marks the first time a U.S. Government agency has taken the top spot. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations comes in at Number 2, while the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) takes third.

2013 ATI Ranking

The index is based on information donors publish about their development projects and is then scored on 39 indicators divided into three categories: commitment to aid transparency; organization-level publication of financial information and general plans; and the availability of country-specific project activities. Format of the data also played a major role in this year’s rankings. Donors that publish data in machine-readable formats such as XML, per the IATI Standard, are rewarded because it makes the data easier to compare and use.

Five other USG agencies were among those assessed by the index, though none made it into the top tier “Very Good” category with the MCC. The Treasury Department came in at #19 and USAID came in at #22 in the “Fair” category, showing quite a bit of improvement in comparison to last year’s rankings. The Department of Defense came in at #27 and the Department of State at #40, both in the “Poor” category and PEPFAR in at #50 in the “Very Poor” category.

U.S. progress in terms of making aid data available is notable—and the State Department announced this week that the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) joined State, DOD, USAID, MCC, and Treasury in adding data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. But it is essential that the data be useful. Publishing to the IATI Standard, the only open data standard for aid information, ensures that data is comparable and usable for donors and recipients of aid.

The U.S. has set a goal of publishing 70 percent of its aid data to IATI by the end of the year and has pledged full implementation of its IATI commitment by 2015, though it seems unlikely they will meet these goals at the current pace.

2013 Aid Transparency Index

October 24th, 2013
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See below for a guest post from MFAN Co-Chair and Brookings senior fellow George Ingram on today’s release of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index. The post originally appeared on Brookings Up Front blog. Be sure to watch the public event hosted by Brookings, which will be live streamed beginning at 3:30 pm EST.

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Today Brookings hosts the public release of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index—the only global measure of donors’ aid transparency.

A big hurrah to the MCC and congratulations to Treasury and USAID! 

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is to be celebrated, not just for leading the American pack, but for coming in first in the overall global rankings.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Treasury Department are to be congratulated for showing significant improvements since 2012.  The Department of State, Department of Defense and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) clearly have a lot of catching up to do.

At the policy level, the commitment and leadership of the Obama administration—through several White House directives  instructing all agencies to embrace open government and open data that is machine readable and readily usable—has been superb.  It has demonstrated it understands the value of making U.S. assistance data publicly available through the innovative Foreign Assistance Dashboard and subsequent agreement to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Why, and for whom, is making assistance data publicly available so important?  Publicly available data:

  • Helps donors make more informed decisions, manage their programs better and coordinate their aid efforts with other donors’ assistance.
  • Enables recipient governments to know where assistance is going in their country so they can better allocate their own budget resources.
  • Allows citizens to be better informed on government decisions and therefore better able to hold government accountable.
  • Feeds the private sector with a new resource on which to create new business services. Publication to IATI is picking up steam.

Donors accounting for 86 percent of official development finance (ODF) are committed to publishing to IATI by the end of 2015 and those accounting for 69 percent are now reporting some information to the IATI registry.  Only a relatively small number of U.S. civil society organizations, such as Plan USA, have committed to publishing their data to IATI.  A few leading foundations such as Gates and Hewlett have joined IATI as well.

As aid transparency is a departure from business as usual (the typical opaqueness of government), the initial decision to make U.S. assistance data publicly available was not an easy one, and the Obama administration deserves due credit.  With more than 25 U.S. government agencies involved in providing assistance, implementation, despite considerable effort, has been more difficult.  This is where attention now needs to double down.

In the first three years of the dashboard, a mere five agencies—USAID, MCC, State, Treasury and Defense—have posted only partial data.  They were joined just this week by the African Development Foundation.  Where is the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and data-driven PEPFAR?  Where is activity level data, so that users can determine where and how the aggregate level assistance is being used?  Where are the links to planning and evaluation documents?

The U.S. has pledged full implementation of its commitment to IATI by 2015.  At the current pace it likely will miss that goal.  The MCC and Treasury, admittedly with more simplified data sets, have demonstrated that compliance with IATI is possible.  USAID has also provided evidence of the results of good effort.

There are three problems.  One, most agencies have not made their data public, either to the dashboard or to IATI.  Two, the U.S. has not committed to providing data for some of the most relevant IATI fields, such as activity budgets and results and links to project and performance documents, although agencies have the data and can publish it.  MCC has done so already.  Three, the current process for posting U.S. data to the IATI registry is for the data to first go to the dashboard. However, data that agencies are providing are not being posted to the IATI registry in either a timely fashion or in complete, data rich form—the dashboard is not using the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s XML format but, rather, spreadsheets that lose some of the detail of the data.

The U.S. can fulfill its obligations through three steps:

  • Establish precise plans and timetables for each agency to publish its assistance data to the dashboard and IATI.
  • Provide data for the full range of IATI fields, including data at the activity level and on results, as the MCC has done.
  • Allow full data sets to be posted to IATI.  There are two alternatives for accomplishing this goal. One, the dashboard can adopt the IATI standard.  Alternatively, eliminate the requirement that agencies send their data through the dashboard.  Accept the fact that the dashboard is valuable for what it was originally designed for—collecting and presenting U.S. assistance data—and remove it as a hindrance to agencies publishing their data directly to IATI.

Finally, nongovernment aid providers and implementers need to step up and join the transparent data era.  In this day, opaqueness should be a thing of the past for all of us.

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.

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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.

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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.