On January 19, Brookings hosted USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and other leading voices in development for a discussion on transparency in U.S. foreign assistance. Panelists included: MFAN Co-Chair George Ingram; Karin Christiansen, director, Publish What You Fund; and Daniel Kaufmann, senior fellow, Brookings. MFAN Principal Noam Unger, fellow and policy director of the Foreign Assistance Reform Project at Brookings, moderated the discussion.
In his keynote speech, Shah emphasized the Administration’s commitment to transparency in foreign assistance programs, but pointed to a few areas for improvement. Emphasizing the importance of sharing new insights on aid with the rest of the word, Shah ultimately believes that all information on aid should be utilized by the broadest community possible. As a global leader, he asserted, the U.S. will go beyond the standards on aid transparency already in place. He said:
“In Paris and Accra, I think the United States was widely seen as, if we’re being honest, dragging our feet on transparency. Our goal going in to Busan was to lead, and of course when you get to a certain place after decades of continual process, you can’t flip the switch right away. But the commitments the President, the secretary, myself and others in the development landscape in our government have made is unwavering, and we will not only meet these international standards but we will, over time, put forth some of these new tools like the geospatial mapping that will really empower people in a fundamentally different way to play with data, connect with development challenges, meet and be introduced to institutions that are conducting projects and programs on the ground, and see the impact of that work.”
Shah added that USAID Forward—the agency’s effort to reform the way USAID does business by building new partnerships, with an “emphasis on innovation and a relentless focus on results”—will play a big role in implementing the Administration’s transparency agenda. Shah concluded his speech explaining that we should invest in local institutions and build local capacity in countries—setting in place tools to measure and track what people are doing with our investments—to help achieve the overall goal of our foreign assistance: self-sufficiency.
Christiansen was the first panelist to speak, giving a brief overview of Publish What You Fund’s first-ever aid transparency index and how the U.S. ranked across its various agencies; the index measured transparency across 58 international donors and organizations. She then described the process that PWYF followed—a set of 37 indicators—to measure the transparency of each agency, noting three major findings. The first is that, across the board, most information is not systematically published. Second, while information is being produced, it is not accessible or readily made available. Christiansen noted that basic information like project timelines are often not released and, even more frequently, information is scattered across websites that make it difficult to gather and analyze. The last major finding dealt with overall performance—some big donors performed well and others performed badly. Christiansen remarked that an agency’s ranking in the index was not necessarily tied to how long that agency has existed; she cited Estonia as an example of a small state that performed well on the index. On a related note, they also found significant variation among how agencies performed within the U.S.
The second panelist, Ingram, shared a broader view on U.S. development policy. He spoke to the policymaking process and the importance of transparency in that process. He also laid out the key elements to good government that transparency is responsible for, including accountability, ownership, good policies, and protection against corruption. He reinforced that these elements are not easily achievable and that they are accompanied by hurdles which include culture of control, time, public disclosure and indecision. Ingram then pointed to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) as a great example of transparency in government. He said, “The MCC started with a mandate of transparency that was built into its DNA. What is the result? For me, the important result is that transparency has been an antidote for the MCC.”
Lastly, Kauffmann identified elements the U.S. government can focus on to support transparency and encourage development. He identified four key points to support his message. First, aid transparency matters and is imperative, particularly from a beneficiary standpoint. Second, the index matters—it must be taken seriously because eventually transparency will be ingrained in policies. Third, countries abroad rely on U.S. leadership on transparency. He elaborated on this point, saying “So the question of leadership and credibility abroad is crucial, particularly on the issues of foreign aid and we think that the issue of transparency, obviously, is clear.” Last, Kauffmann argued that the U.S. must follow through on adopting the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) because we cannot continue to preach good governance and transparency to countries unless we ourselves are credible on the issue of transparency.
Watch a video of Shah’s speech below.