The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Did US foreign aid just get 9% more transparent?

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Treasury and Department of Defense finally show us the money!

Aid transparency should be the lowest hanging fruit on the aid reform tree.  Donors know how much money they are investing, and where; why not just disclose that info?

And yet, within the US government, disclosing this data has been a long, slow, un-anesthetized root canal.  US foreign assistance is balkanized across twenty-two US government agencies.  But until yesterday, only USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) had published information on their expenditures to the Foreign Assistance “Dashboard” at foreignassistance.gov.  No wonder that US government agencies (MCC excepted) generally get poor scores on Publish What You Fund’s (PWYF) Aid Transparency Index.

For months we’ve been watching foreignassistance.gov, looking for new data.  Suddenly last night it arrived.  At some point yesterday, the US government finally pulled back the curtain on two more agencies.  Aid data from the US Treasury Department and Department of Defense finally was posted to the dashboard.

This is not a lot of new data.  In FY11, Treasury and Defense accounted (respectively) for about 6% and 3% of US government aid spending obligations.  But politically, this is an important signal of progress.  Prior to yesterday, the only US government agencies who had reported spending data to the dashboard were under the authority of the Secretary of State—USAID and MCC.  Both identify aid as their primary mission.  But Treasury and Defense have other jobs; foreign assistance is in fact a much smaller portion of their mission.  The fact that they are sharing their data gives new hope that the dashboard can deliver on its promise to be a truly comprehensive tool for knowing where the US government is investing all of its aid dollars.

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Not time for transparency champagne yet. Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

But don’t pop the cork on that champagne yet.  It’s great that Treasury and DoD have added their data alongside USAID and MCC, but that data overall is still pretty pathetic.  You can see nice pie charts of overall US spending to a particular country or sector, but the dashboard won’t let you drill down to the level of detail that people in developing countries actually need.  For example, if you are a DC-based advocate who wants to see how much the US government spent on agriculture in Tanzania in fiscal year 2011, the answer is relatively easy to find; $39.1m.  But if you are at the Agricultural Council of Tanzania, trying to help your members understand how local food markets might be impacted by aid investments, the dashboard can’t provide you anything beyond that top line number.

All this means that the dashboard remains what it has been since its launch in November 2010—all sizzle, no steak.  Without project-level data that helps people understand how aid is being invested and how we are measuring success, the dashboard fails to actually help US aid dollars work better.

So what’s the hold up?  No question there are significant technical hurdles to be overcome.  Those 22 agencies that deliver US foreign aid all have different computers and different methods of compiling data.  Never mind apples to apples; the intrepid but overworked dashboard team at the State Department’s F bureau faces enough of a challenge turning all this diverse stuff into something that vaguely looks like fruit.  And as frustrating as absent data can be, wrong data would be worse; once false data is out in public and replicated, they can become un-killable zombies, popping up again and again, fueling false conclusions.

But as difficult as these technical challenges are, they have solutions.  Other donors have figured it out; the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) are leaders.  (It’s no surprise they rank first and second respectively on PWYF’s rankings.)  Even the US government has figured this out in other places.  Check out “recovery.gov”, where you can track every dollar of the 2009 Recovery Act.  You can drill down to the zip code, and see disbursements and results data.  This is exactly the kind of data that citizens and leaders in developing countries are asking for.

As usual, the real challenge seems to be lack of political will.  Getting the recovery.gov website up and running was not easy either, but that effort had a couple political advantages. It had the President’s prestige committed to getting it done, and it was required by the Recovery Act legislation itself.  The US government put in resources to get that effort done because the President’s reputation was on the line, and Congress was looking over his shoulder.

Soon we expect that Congress will reintroduce legislation to require US aid transparency.  Last year, the State Department spent months actively opposing the legislation before finally yielding to the inevitable.  Unfortunately, Congress adjourned before the Senate could take up the bill.  This year, the State Department has a chance for a do-over, whether or not the State Department supports the legislation introduced by Congressman Poe and Senator Rubio. Last year, Senator John Kerry supported the bill; here’s hoping he will do so again as Secretary of State.

We’re all waiting to see just how serious they are about aid transparency.

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