Transparency and Foreign Assistance: Fulfilling U.S. Commitments

Yesterday, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network announced their new policy agenda, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond. One of the pillars of the new policy is accountability and transparency.

image2I was asked to discuss how the U.S. can best use IATI and the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to keep its transparency commitments. So, as the U.S. continues its work, here are my top five recommendations for how to best achieve our aid transparency goals:

  1. Publish high quality data, then use it often. The top priority must be publication of high quality data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), complete with the “value added” fields such as geocoding, results and forward spending. Get one set of really good data, then use it over and over. Use it to meet our Busan commitments. Use it to report to Congress. Use it for the Dashboard. Encourage agencies to use it for their own internal data management and to inform their decision-making. One good set of data can serve a multitude of purposes. The Dutch and Swedish government have fully adopted the “publish once and use often” approach. We should too.
  1. Share our data with the world. Data must be published to the IATI registry without delay and in its entirety.We don’t want just the U.S. to use our own data – we want the world to have access and to have every platform that is built using IATI data to include U.S. foreign assistance data. Otherwise, the significant role of the U.S. in foreign assistance is either misled or undervalued.
  1. The U.S. should promote the use of IATI. In additional to using it internally – it can be a great management tool – the U.S. should talk with our partner countries to understand what they need to make their own decisions and then seek to prioritize that data. If, for example, geocoded information is valuable and in demand, then we should prioritize the publication of geocoded data.
  1. Priorities for the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. We support the Dashboard’s current effort to review its own functionality and improve its visualizations. But the first priority has to be in automating the publication of quality, timely and comprehensive aid data from all agencies administering foreign assistance. Once there is a critical mass of quality data, the Dashboard should tackle how users can maximize the site. And as it works through this review, we have suggested that it should also look at the question of who is its intended user – the U.S. or all users globally? Different users need different portals, depending on the information they seek.
  1. Accelerate Progress! Right now, the U.S. is behind in the timetable to meet its IATI commitments. One way to reset our progress is for agencies involved in foreign assistance – particularly State and USAID, which account for approximately 74% of our foreign aid – to make and publish a costed, management plan that lays out the blueprint to full IATI implementation. Such a plan would identify the resources, benchmarks and timetables that put us on a realistic path to the end of 2015. Finally, in both making and implementing this plan, it is essential that policy and technical leaders in an agency work together – a marriage, if you will, that keeps both of these important functions working together. MCC – which finished first in our Index last year – is proof of this point.

We know that, in just a few short years, there has been remarkable global progress on aid transparency. But we are not there yet. In the U.S., there have been a number of positive steps, starting with President Obama’s memorandum on open government and transparency, signed on his first day in office. The launching of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard in 2010 was a welcome announcement, as was Secretary Clinton’s 2011 commitment to IATI in Busan. Likewise, there have been a number of Administration policy pronouncements, all with the aim of improving our reporting, publishing and transparency of aid data.

These steps forward are not only welcomed but very much needed. But they are not enough. Why?

  • Because both globally and in the U.S., the state of aid information is still outdated, piecemeal and can’t be compared across donors.

o   We don’t know, with any detail, what we are spending and with what results;

o   We have little information about what other donors are spending – and with what results;

o   And recipient countries – where we want and expect that they will some day become self sufficient – often have little idea what donors are spending, let alone know what they plan to spend in the future.

  • Thus, without timely, quality, comparable and accessible aid information, the ability to make informed decisions about our foreign assistance is almost accidental.

In IATI, we have a solution to those problems, which is why people like me advocate so much for it. But it’s not just me – IATI has a critical mass of political commitment: donors representing 86% of ODF have agreed to publish their aid data to the Standard. The U.S. has made the political decision. Now it must be among the donors who follow through on that commitment.

Every year, Publish What You Fund does a global assessment of aid transparency among the biggest donors in the world. The picture so far has been mixed, both within the U.S. and globally. We will publish our Aid Transparency Index again this October. We hope to see good progress and improved transparency by all U.S. agencies – we are the biggest single donor in the world and we should be the leading donor on transparency. We can’t afford not to.

Sally Paxton

Sally is the U.S. Representative for Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at sally.paxton@publishwhatyoufund.org.
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