The way forward for U.S. foreign aid

In a recent report, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) outlines an agenda for reform, for change, and (hopefully) for a better way for the U.S. to do development. The message of the paper, called “The Way Forward”, is clear: the U.S. must deliver on their aid transparency commitments.

The report outlines three ways the U.S. Government can make its aid transparent:

1. Do IATI

coinsThe U.S. signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in 2011, and all U.S. agencies administering foreign assistance committed to publishing their aid information to the IATI Registry by 2015. But so far, only a few have published – and of those, most have only partially published. In the paper, MFAN tells agencies they must accelerate progress in publishing to IATI – effectively saying all agencies must do more, and do it better. This same call was echoed by over 47 organizations in letters to USAID and the State Department. Specifically, agencies should work to publish all their information to the IATI Registry, including all projects and project documents, evaluations and results. Guidance on what the data shows also helps, as making the data easy to understand is important to ensuring proper and better usage. The information should be timely and current, and include forward spending information, as evidence shows that this information is what matters most to those who receive aid and plan budgets.

2. Do better in the Aid Transparency Index

Publish What You Fund publishes an annual Aid Transparency Index (ATI). It ranks the transparency of over 65 international aid organizations, including five U.S. agencies and one program: DOD, MCC, State, Treasury, USAID and PEPFAR. As the world’s largest single aid donor, the U.S. should lead by example in the ATI. The paper recommends U.S. agencies should fall in the “Very Good” or “Good” category (only one U.S. agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, currently meets that ranking). Unsurprisingly, we agree.  But to get there, much more needs to be done by those agencies falling behind in the ranking, especially PEPFAR, DOD and State.

How exactly? By publishing to IATI. Specifically:

  • PEPFAR should publish its own spending and information about allocations to other agencies. It also should publish its evaluations, country strategies and the Country Operation Plans – all of which hold valuable aid information.
  • DOD’s 2013 ATI data is patchy and missing important elements such as evaluations, budget documents and overall cost of activities. This should be added on DOD’s future publications.
  • The State Department has yet to publish any obligation or transaction data. Correcting this should be made a priority and we hope any upcoming information is published before the Index data cut off point: June 30.

3. Use the data

And last, but far from least, is data use. MFAN recommends that the information published should be accessible and agencies should promote its use. This is a key priority. Aid data needs to be shared and promoted if it is to get into the hands of the people who can use it. We should not expect recipients of aid to go on a wild-goose chase for data in multiple agencies’ websites, hiding behind cryptic names and budget acronyms, often redacted and often out of date. And it should be in the agencies’ interest to promote data use. They can, as USAID and others have done, hold workshops to discuss what the data represents, and discover the full potential of this information. They should issue guidance on what information the data holds, and what it means, and share with users the plan to complete and improve the data set.

Agencies should visualize their aid data in a way that is meaningful to the recipient (much like these examples from other donors: here, here and here). There are far more ways to visualize the data, but users need to be involved in the consultations to make this more effective. And agencies should work with both their country offices and country stakeholders to promote the best use of the most needed data. Lastly, agencies should work together to showcase their data and present it side by side so the full aid picture is available to the user. Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if you could go to a site and visualize all MCC’s spending in Burkina Faso, along with USAID and State Department?

Making aid more transparent, accessible, comprehensive and comparable is not an easy task, but we know it can be done. It involves reform, both in the culture within government, and in the systems that hold the information stakeholders want to see. And reform requires political resolve – not to mention tech savvy, forward-thinking leaders. But all of this is possible.

So let’s not stay in the past but rather work on what’s next and more specifically on how to get there. “The Way Forward” makes concrete suggestions – the task now is delivery, with clear measures of success.

Let’s work on robust implementation so that all can reap the benefits of more effective aid. That is what we call the Way Forward.

 

Catalina Reyes

Catalina is a Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at catalina.reyes@publishwhatyoufund.org
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