If policymakers, taxpayers, and intended partners of U.S. foreign assistance do not know how much is being spent, what it is being used for, who is getting the funds, and what the intended and actual results are, how can they be assured that money is well spent? Increasing accountability of U.S. aid dollars requires a transparent, results-based system where decisions are made on the basis of transparent facts and evidence.
For two decades, a bipartisan effort in both Congress and the executive branch to strengthen the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance has led to significant progress in the areas of transparency, monitoring and evaluation, evidence-based programming, learning, and partnerships with local organizations, all of which advance the effectiveness of foreign assistance.
In recent years, aid transparency has been significantly enhanced across the U.S. Government.
In 2013, the State Department created the ForeignAssistance.gov website, which reports to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and hosts foreign aid program data from 19 of the more than 20 U.S. agencies that carry out aid programs and combined represent 98% of U.S. foreign assistance funds. In 2016, Congress and the President enacted the bipartisan Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA), institutionalizing ForeignAssistance.gov and requiring all agencies implementing foreign assistance programs to publish “comprehensive, timely, and comparable” project level information on ForeignAssistance.gov on a quarterly basis. It also requires agencies to monitor and evaluate their programs and to publicly report all evaluations.
While USAID had operated its own dashboard that included strong data and transparency of programming, MFAN advocated for the integration of these two websites, bringing together the strengths of each into a single site. The two dashboards were integrated in 2021, greatly improving data quality and funding efficiency for the U.S. taxpayer.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) have studied and initiated improvements to the use of data by local partners. Additionally, the State Department and USAID have begun to improve their internal information management systems. These enhancements will improve the reporting and, therefore, the transparency of U.S. aid programming.
USAID, MCC, the State Department, and the Department of Defense – as required by FATAA and a later directive in the 2017 Defense Authorization bill – have all released policies requiring independent evaluations of foreign assistance and are making their full evaluations or summaries public. In addition, each agency now has an evaluation policy which has been updated according to new requirements in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act). In 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed implementation of the monitoring and evaluation practices required of U.S. foreign assistance agencies, and MFAN continues to monitor GAO’s recommendations. MFAN supports stronger implementation of monitoring and evaluation practices, including impact evaluations, across all foreign aid agencies in order to realize the greatest potential of these accountability tools to enhance aid effectiveness.
The application of a strong learning agenda, based on the monitoring and evaluation of current and prior programs along with results-oriented programming goals, is a vital component of aid effectiveness. The implementation of dynamic learning agendas within the U.S. aid agencies remains inconsistent, however.
While MCC has developed a strategic plan that invests in greater learning for adaptation and greater impact and emerged as a leader in the area of meaningful learning, MFAN is concerned that others within the U.S. government continue to fall short. After conducting a study of evaluation utilization, USAID revised its internal guidance in 2016 to ensure that evaluations are used to inform programs and decision-making. Additionally, MFAN published a study with The Lugar Center assessing the utilization of learning across multiple foreign assistance agencies. The study noted that learning was not yet systematic within some agencies. However, USAID adopted its first ever agency-wide Self Reliance Learning Agenda in 2019 and updated the Agency Learning Agenda in 2022 (in keeping with the requirements of the Evidence Act and to reflect current agency priorities). The State Department published a new Learning Agenda in 2022, also as required by the Evidence Act. MFAN is monitoring how each of these agencies will carry out its new learning agenda for improved aid effectiveness.