Politics of Poverty

“Did you say there was agreement about something in Washington?”

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Improved transparency and monitoring of US foreign aid – what’s not to like?

Mary Marchal is Partnerships Advisor on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness Team.
Mary Marchal is Partnerships Advisor on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness Team.

Let’s hope it’s not too good to be true, but it looks like Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, the White House, and USAID might agree on something—that US foreign aid needs to be more transparent.

Today “Judge” Ted Poe (R-TX), joined by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) in the House, and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) in the Senate, introduced the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013 (H.R. 2638 and S. 1271).

The US gives a lot of money in foreign aid, though not as much as the average Americans think we do. And there isn’t enough that is devoted to poverty relief. The issue is not about whether or not the US should be giving aid. (Check these out if you’re not yet convinced:  “Another Great American Tradition: Foreign Aid” from Catholic Relief Services CEO, Carolyn Woo, in the Baltimore Sun, or the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on private sector interests in supporting economic development abroad, or “Sen. Graham Urges Religious Groups to Rally Support for Foreign Aid to Combat AIDS” from the Christian Post.) The fact is, money is coming from the US for the purpose of helping people fight poverty in other countries, and there are ways we could be doing it better. That’s what this legislation does.

The bill would require the US government to: (1) provide more information about how much, what, and where our foreign aid dollars go, as well as (2) strengthen processes to track and evaluate the projects and programs towards which those dollars go. Sound familiar? A similar bill was introduced during the last session of Congress.

Photo: http://bit.ly/16rIAMR

What’s most exciting this time around is that there seems to be bipartisan and cross-agency agreement that more transparency and better monitoring of US foreign aid is the right thing to do. This may be one thing that Congress, the White House, and USAID can agree on.

The Administration has already taken steps to increase information available about US foreign assistance investments, from the launch of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to the co-founding of the Open Government Partnership. In November 2011 the US became a signatory to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). In May the President issued an executive order on open data and we saw aid data from the US Treasury Department and Department of Defense added to foreignassistance.gov.

Big changes at USAID over the past four years include a new evaluation policy to improve monitoring and evaluation, and the reintroduction of Country Development Cooperation Strategies, which are detailed in-country plans that must be made publicly available within two months of finalization. The impacts of these changes are starting to show. You can see how in USAID Forward Progress Report released in March and in the impressive improvement of the US ranking among other international donors. The US jumped from the bottom 36% of most transparent international donors in 2011 to the top 37% in just one year, though some at Oxfam still worry about Raj Shah’s commitment to transparency.

Oxfam’s favorite part is that people who live and work in developing countries—those that US foreign assistance is designed to support—think this is a good idea too.  During the Obama family’s recent visit to Africa, we heard this loud and clear from colleagues in Tanzania and South Africa.  This is nothing new, we hear all the time from partners outside of the US that they simply need more information about how much, when, and for what US aid is coming into their country. This is not only necessary for planning, but also helps advocates to hold their own government accountable and fight corruption. As Semkae Kilonzo, Coordinator of the Policy Forum in Tanzania, told me last year,

“From the civil society perspective, what is crucial more than anything else is transparency of budget information, including its timeliness, relevance and usefulness. The donors should be transparent about what it is that they have given the Tanzanian government and for what purpose, so that people in communities like ours can track the money.”

Back on Capitol Hill, in addition to the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013, last month a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders sent a letter to the White House calling on the administration to ramp up progress on foreign aid transparency efforts.

So if Semkae Kilonzo, USAID, the White House, and Congressional Republicans all agree – let’s lock it in.


Read Oxfam America’s “Transparency and US Foreign Aid” brief and click here to contact your representatives and tell them to “Open the books on Foreign Aid.”

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