As the long-dreaded sequestration process begins to set in, U.S. government programs that have already been feeling the heat of budget pressures are now starting to feel the pinch. Across all agencies and departments, there has never been such heightened vigilance to determine the quality, value, and effectiveness of taxpayer-funded programs in order to save them from landing on the proverbial chopping block. U.S. foreign assistance is no exception, and in fact, is likely to be a popular target despite notable progress over the past decade in how aid is delivered.
One basic tool to help circumvent arbitrary and needless cuts is to make information related to foreign assistance transparent, accessible and comparable with the activities of other international donors. Congress has the important responsibility of choosing how much to allocate for activities that seek to lift millions out of extreme poverty, fight disease, spur growth and restore human dignity. In this challenging budget environment, that responsibility is of even higher consequence, with the potential to affect lives all around the world, either for the better or worse. But to make informed decisions, Congress needs to have at its disposal comprehensive, reliable data that is timely and up-to-date.
The Foreign Assistance Dashboard— a public website launched a little over two years ago by the Obama administration to examine this data— demonstrates a strong commitment to aid transparency. However, compliance from agencies involved in U.S. foreign assistance has been slow; the site still only has partial information (budget plans, obligations and expenditures) for a couple of agencies (USAID and Millennium Challenge Corporation) and just planning data for the State Department, leaving out more than a dozen others as well as critical program and project data that lie beneath the aid-flow surface.
The U.S. made another major commitment to the transparency agenda at the 2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, by joining the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Meeting the IATI commitments, particularly the publication of comprehensive and timely foreign assistance information, is incomplete and moving slowly.
Congress needs to understand that the dashboard and IATI are the tools it has been searching for. Members continuously complain about the opaqueness of foreign assistance – how much assistance is the U.S. providing, to what countries, for what purposes, in cooperation with whom, to what effect? Where is the information to explain to constituents how their tax dollars are being spent? Together the dashboard and IATI will provide this information.
Even more importantly, while there are varying opinions over the best uses and purposes for foreign assistance, members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, are united in caring that foreign assistance dollars are used well – that tax dollars are not wasted and that the assistance does help lift individuals and countries from poverty and promote U.S. foreign policy interests.
IATI is a critical tool in contributing to the effective use of foreign assistance funds – and not just government provided assistance, but also that which is provided by private entities such as NGOs, foundations and corporations. It is currently the only place for comparable aid information. While the dashboard is a valuable domestic resource, IATI allows a wide range of stakeholders to know what the U.S. government is doing alongside what others are doing. This is the full aid picture and what recipients want to know on the ground.
As of April 2013, 39 government and multilateral donors, and over 100 private organizations, have committed to IATI. When fully operative and with timely and comprehensive data from all donors, we will have the ability through one website to find all donor activity in a particular sector and a particular locale in a country – a virtual one-stop-data-shop for foreign assistance. So how will this improve aid effectiveness?
Let’s say you are: (1) USAID contemplating investing scarce assistance funds in education in region X of country Y; (2) a congressional staffer whose boss has asked whether donors are helping to expand education opportunities in that region; (3) an NGO contemplating working in that region; (4) a finance ministry budget expert in country Y trying to figure out which school districts are in the greatest need of resources in the next fiscal year. IATI will provide the data to help answer these questions.
Through IATI, USAID will know which other donors are engaged in the region, at what level of funding, with what specific focus, and with whom it might coordinate. The congressional staffer can tell his member what donors and at what level education is being assisted. The NGO can tell if this region is overrun by its sister organizations or ignored and with whom it might partner. The ministry budget expert can better allocate scarce resources and query the education ministry staff as to whether it is integrating donor activity into national education plans.
The administration is to be commended for taking the leading in bringing U.S. assistance into the age of data transparency. It is now time for Congress to become involved, by supporting the administration but also by pushing for more robust implementation. Congressman Ted Poe does this in his bill, the “Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act”, which passed the House in the waning days of the last Congress but was held up in the Senate. It is expected that he will soon reintroduce the bill. Congress should act swiftly to enact it into law and recommend that IATI be the standard by which all agencies in the aid space publish their data.George Ingram is senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program. He formerly served on the professional staff of the House Committee on Foreign affairs and as deputy assistant administrator at USAID. He focuses on development effectiveness, aid reform, and foreign affairs advocacy.