Opening Up: Aid Information, Transparency and U.S. Foreign Assistance Reform

brookings The Brookings Institution and Publish What You Fund today hosted a discussion entitled “Opening Up: Aid Information, Transparency and U.S. Foreign Assistance Reform.”  Moderated by MFAN Principal Noam Unger, Fellow and Foreign Assistance Reform Project Policy Director at Brookings, the conversation focused on what the U.S. government is doing to pursue greater transparency and its role in shaping international aid transparency standards.  Featured speakers were: Deputy Assistant to the Administrator at the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); and Karin Christiansen, Director of MFAN Partner Publish What You Fund.  Discussants included: Augustine Ngafuan, Minister of Finance in Liberia; Nancy Birdsall, President of the Center for Global Development (an MFAN partner); and Daniel Kaufmann, Senior Fellow at Brookings.

Publish-What-You-Fund-logo-hi-res-150x150Christiansen presented Publish What You Fund’s 2010 Aid Transparency Assessment, the first attempt to undertake a detailed comparison of the current levels of aid transparency.  The main findings of the assessment were as follows:

1.       A lack of comparable data;

2.       Wide variation in the levels of donor transparency; and

3.       Weakness across the transparency indicators used in the assessment.

Given these findings, Publish What You Fund developed a set of recommendations to first have donors make aid information available, as they have demonstrated that this is possible; second, making more and better information available; and lastly having a common standard for everyone.

The U.S. government efforts to improve development assistance transparency were addressed by Levine.  She pointed to the development of the soon-to-be-launched Foreign Assistance Dashboard website, tentatively to be released later this month in conjunction with the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which will allow for online tracking of U.S. foreign assistance funding.  Levine emphasized that the U.S. government has a responsibility to share information among agencies, and credited the Millennium Challenge Corporation for leading the charge on aid transparency, in particular with regard to its country selection process as well as spending and performance data.

She acknowledged that USAID can do better, noting longstanding problems with time lag in gathering information and siloed legacy systems that don’t speak a common language.  USAID is, however, in the process of finalizing a new evaluation policy that will be issued in January to begin to tackle these issues, and will be pursuing pilots in three countries over the course of the next year.  She also agreed that the U.S. must take an active role in the development of a common standard for transparency, as called for in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Ngafuan, a native of Liberia, presented a different view from the perspective of a highly aid-dependent country.  While emphasizing the good work of the donors in Liberia, Ngafuan urged that better aid coordination will result from more information being shared by donor countries.  For instance, he suggested a dedicated in-country office that would be a one-stop shop for multiple agencies as a way to consolidate and coordinate the many actors and better aggregate the information, which has been a criticism of civil society organizations.

He also demanded the same level of accountability of implementing partners, and that universal transparency can help ensure there are “lots of eyes on the cookie jar,” from the legislature to the government auditors to the media and, most importantly, to the people themselves.  Ngafuan asserted that it is “not a matter of not knowing what to do….but of addressing the gulf between commitments and realities.”

Birdsall echoed Ngafuan’s comments that recipient countries need to have greater access to the aid information of donor countries, which she described as “very primitive, still in kindergarten.”  She noted that according to a new tool developed jointly by CGD and Brookings called QuODA, the U.S. ranks 22nd out of 31 countries on the Quality of Official Development Assistance.  She also urged the U.S. to join as a member of IATI, that in addition to better showing aid flows, there should be a “deep think about more than inputs and tracking money, but rather what is working?”  She encouraged donor nations to make quarterly and annual reports of their aid disbursements by sector and channel to recipient countries using “three or four key pieces of data.”

Kaufmann discussed the existing challenges to transparency such as the lack of comparability across agency programs, and cautioned that while increasing the use of impact evaluations is helpful, we must be sure to do it in a way that allows for comparing evaluations across projects.  He proposed donor and recipient nations joining forces to obtain greater transparency and coordination.

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