The security aid blackout: How cloudy U.S. security assistance information hampers effective progress

This is a guest post by Abigail Poe, Director of the Security Assistance Monitor and Colby Goodman, Senior Research Associate of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy

From extremist attacks against civilians in Afghanistan to police abuse of Muslim community members in Kenya, people struggle every day with security threats that violate other basic human rights and inhibit development. Security assistance—the aid, arms, and training provided to other countries’ militaries and police forces—can be a helpful tool to foster stability. Done well, it can reduce security threats from violent actors and help make security forces more accountable to the civilian population. Done poorly, it can fuel conflict and human rights violations and undermine progress.

Over the past decade, the United States has greatly expanded its investment and involvement in the security sectors of other countries. American defense contractors and military forces are now active in more than 125 countries at an estimated annual price tag of over $18 billion a year. However, unlike other forms of U.S. foreign assistance, most security and defense assistance is not published on the State Department’s “Foreign Aid Dashboard” or in the International Aid Transparency Initiative registry, making it nearly impossible for the public, policymakers and journalists to hold it to account.

According to the recently released 2015 U.S. Aid Transparency Review, the Defense Department’s transparency on foreign aid is also decreasing. Compared to 2014 levels, the Defense Department dropped eight percentage points because of missing key information on foreign assistance commitments and expenditures.

In many developing countries, institutions of civilian governance are relatively weak in comparison to their military counterparts, which can be overly powerful, corrupt and abusive, or serve to enforce unpopular and repressive regimes. When the United States trains, arms and equips foreign security forces in such countries, their strategies can undermine the very civilian institutions we are trying to shore up. These “solutions” often do not work to the benefit of the people or the long-term stability of the region.

To build stronger, more legitimate and sustainable governments capable of providing security, we must enable effective public participation in decisions that affect their lives and ensure that donor spending and policies reflect the will and priorities of the people.

The gap in public information on State and Defense Department assistance efforts prompted the creation of the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM). SAM is the first, and only, resource to house all publicly available, detailed, official data on U.S. security assistance in one place. It provides much more detailed information than the State Department’s “Foreign Aid Dashboard.” Our interactive online database and research provide citizens with information about how the United States and their own government approach security in their country, which is critical to holding both governments to account.

Improved access to quality, timely, useable information has many benefits. Detailed information on military and police aid helps both the donor government and civil society ensure it is properly focused and achieves the intended outcomes and results. In the recipient country, access to information can also help improve the success of security assistance through regular evaluation by civil society and the communities who are most directly affected. It can also help prevent corruption and the misuse of funds, training and equipment.

However, much of the information on Pentagon security assistance activities – what they cost, what they are designed to do, who received the assistance and where the assistance was used – is simply not publicly available. Even the State Department, which makes public much more information about its military and police aid flows, leaves out millions of dollars worth of spending details by country for peacekeeping and anti-terrorism funding. And when official reports are submitted to Congress, they are frequently and increasingly unavailable to the public.

The sheer quantity of activities and programs being carried out all over the world contribute to the lack of clarity in U.S. security assistance. The U.S. Defense Department alone funds and implements at least 18 weapons and training programs, and it added six more just last year. In this year’s annual defense authorization bill, Congress is proposing at least three new security assistance authorities.

While it appears there is support within the State and Defense Departments for increased transparency on security assistance, we clearly have a long way to go. In some cases, just providing reports that used to be available publically such as on the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program would be helpful.

For the Defense Department to provide a clear sign of support for enabling effective public and recipient government participation in security aid spending, the Pentagon should make public past and projected spending by country for all security assistance, including ones that cover counter-drug and counterterrorism aid. Information on the objectives, types of activities and results are critical to being able to assess the effectiveness of the aid money.

Both State and DoD should also make all official, non-classified, reports to Congress on security assistance available to the public by posting them online in downloadable format. And for truly global transparency, security assistance should be added to the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s (IATI) database under “development cooperation activities.”

Without increased transparency, sound decision-making on security assistance is severely limited both in the United States and recipient countries. Pentagon efforts to reduce security threats and the resulting benefits to development are also stymied.

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