MFAN Partner Oxfam on the New US Foreign Assistance Dashboard

See below for a guest post from MFAN member Archana Palaniappan of the Aid Effectiveness Team at Oxfam America as she highlights features of the new US Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which launched today. The dashboard is just one of the changes brought on by the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and internal reforms at USAID–USAID Forward.

This is actually useful:  The new US Foreign Assistance Dashboard

Have you checked out foreignassistance.gov yet?  I know, another government data website might not seem like your idea of a gift from Santa.  But actually, this has the capacity to save development nerds a lot of time and has the potential to help poor people solve a lot of headaches.

The new website is commonly referred to as the “Aid Dashboard.”  It’s the follow-through on a promise made in July when the Obama Administration unveiled its plan to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  The Aid Dashboard aims to give the public a window into how and where US development dollars are spent.  And it’s not just a mash of numbers; the Dashboard uses dynamic graphics to allow stakeholders to picture US foreign assistance investments easily by geography, sector, or time period.

So is this a big deal to poor people?  The more people in poor countries know what donors are up to in their own backyards, the more they can hold their governments responsible for how they use the aid money that comes in. Citizen watchdog groups, journalists, and local businesses alike can use this comprehensive information to blow the whistle on aid dollars that they now know disappeared or weren’t used to meet their needs.  The more citizens know, the more they can fight corruption themselves.

I’m really excited that the United States is finally taking aid transparency seriously. It’s no small task trying to get all 26 US agencies that deliver foreign aid on the same page (note that’s the end goal ─ the beta version today only includes spending by USAID and the State Department).  But this is just a first step. I’m still left wondering about the people this would matter to the most.  How user-friendly is this data to aid recipients and does it answer “what they’re asking for?”

Magalie L’Abbé under a Creative Commons licenseIn a country like Cambodia, where foreign aid accounts for half the national budget, will this online tool help their citizens?  Consider that less than 2 percent of the population can access the internet and read English. Outside of the government, there are probably only ten people who can access the database and analyze it.  To the average Cambodian, that’s not transparency yet.  But they’ve taken the first step.  Now it’s up to the US embassies and USAID mission staff in-country to disseminate the information in a more accessible form.  But do they have the mandate and capacity to translate the information into local languages? Will they do extensive outreach with local civil society organizations, budget monitoring groups, legislatures, and supreme auditing bodies?  Most importantly, what’s their incentive to report to the country and even give data to the country’s own aid information management system?  The information is only as good as it is useable.  Just a few more steps to take and we can magnify anti-corruption efforts by citizens around the world.

Monks head online in Phnom Penh.Photo courtesy of Flickr user Magalie L’Abbé under a Creative Commons license.

The Aid Dashboard is a good start and I hope to see its longevity cemented by Congress.  They have the power to make it stick, and in fact, various bipartisan bills with broad support have already called for more transparency of US aid dollars.  Seems like a no-brainer.  Over the next year, USAID and State are road testing the Aid Dashboard in three highly aid dependent countries to learn what information is the most valuable to those countries.  In the meantime, the creators are eager to get feedback on this work-in-progress.  Be sure to click on the site’s Contact Us tab and let them know how to improve the data they provide so it can help citizens control their own development.

To learn more about what the lack of transparency means on the ground, check out Oxfam’s report, Information:  Let Countries Know What Donors Are Doing.  And remember kids, the more you know, the more you can do.

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