Aid transparency: Emerging common ground

The shift to Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives means aid transparency is set to emerge as an area of common ground.

As Representative John Boehner (R-OH) said in July this year, “The American people […] deserve to be a part of an open and transparent process”. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) highlighted just last month that “much of the raw data about government spending and performance is not accessible” and has stated “The ultimate goal is full transparency and accountability” in a conversation referring to unanswered Freedom of Information requests.

Members of both parties have shown their commitment to greater transparency and an open government to ensure accountability and value for money to taxpayers. Recently launched websites such as data.gov, recovery.gov, and usaspending.gov now allow citizens to see how their tax dollars are spent and where their money is going.

The day after the midterm elections President Obama said “I think the American people want to see more transparency, more openness. […] And I think if you take Republicans and Democrats at their word this is an area that they want to deliver on for the American people”.

A major focus on aid transparency is emerging within U.S. foreign assistance, with the launch of the U.S. “aid transparency initiative” and an “aid dashboard” as part of the new framework on aid effectiveness. These steps demonstrate the political will for accountability and aid transparency, yet real value for money is still not being delivered. What is needed to ensure that aid money is used to best effect is comparability. For more effective foreign assistance, U.S. efforts should complement those of other donors.

Currently, the U.S. gives $20 billion in foreign assistance each year through nearly two dozen different agencies and mechanisms. With the proliferation of agencies and increased funding levels, there has not been a sufficient effort to track where money is going and the impact it is having.

Fundamental to getting the most out of information on foreign assistance is a common language operating between U.S. agencies and with other donors. Without a common language – the ability to map and match data – we cannot get the most out of information. Comparability is what turns more information into better information.

Only when aid information can be compared across U.S. agencies and with other donors will it be possible for legislators, taxpayers, and aid workers to tell if money is being put to the best use possible. Without knowing what other donors and development agencies are planning, how do you know where to channel your own resources? Similarly, without knowing what resources the national government and other donors are, say, putting into the Liberian health sector, how can you tell whether U.S. efforts are having an impact?

There is already a coalition of major donors developing a common language to address the need for comparability; the process is called the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The U.S. needs to seize the opportunity to ensure the IATI Standard works for America and ensure taxpayers’ money is spent to best effect not just at home, but also abroad.

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