Congress Eyes Greater Transparency in Foreign Aid, This Time the Timing Could be Right

From the perspective of both U.S. taxpayers and recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, it’s been a very positive few weeks on both sides of the Capitol. Legislation to advance greater transparency of U.S. foreign assistance programs has now been approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the leadership of Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN), I staffed the Senator when he authored the Senate companion bill  that Congressman Ted Poe introduced in the 112th Congress and has continued to introduce in every Congress since then, The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. The bill narrowly missed enactment in the waning days of that Congress – late in December of 2012 – despite a unanimous vote by the full House.

Since that time, interest in the topic of foreign aid effectiveness has not waned. Neither has the need for it. In fact, in today’s world, maintaining the effectiveness of our taxpayer dollars in keeping starving people alive with critical food aid, investing in women, smallholder farmers so they can improve their crop production and in turn feed their families, and supporting  HIV/AIDS victims with life-saving medical treatment is more vital than ever.  Our financial resources in supporting people in the developing world be able to move from living in crisis to living in stability are stretched to their maximum, with destabilized governments, drought and continued lack of access to water and basic education a constant across much of the world. We need to see where we’re investing, what we’re getting in return, and how we can make progress to move these countries and their citizens from being dependent on our aid to becoming our trading partners.

In my current position at The Lugar Center, we continue to endorse the critical investment in developing countries in order to promote a more prosperous and stable world.  We believe that an important component of this investment is ensuring its effectiveness through transparency, and we work to promote it. The Obama Administration took important steps in this area, with the creation of the webpage, foreignassistance.gov. Here taxpayers are now able to see how much of their taxpayer dollars go to a specific country and for what purpose. Further, the transfer of this data to the International Aid Transparency Registry provides even greater transparency regarding the flow of aid funds into each developing country by a host of donors, NGOs and others from across the globe.

While some federal agencies responsible for administering U.S. foreign aid are already living up to executive branch commitments to be more transparent about where and for what purpose taxpayer dollars are being spent, regrettably not all of them are. The posting of this information to foreignassistance.gov, is uneven and often incomplete. Only the Millennium Challenge Corporation has received a rating of “Very Good” on the Publish What You Fund 2014 Aid Transparency Index.  Frankly, all 22 federal agencies providing foreign assistance need to do better.

Here is where the Congress can play a critical role. By enacting legislation that requires all federal agencies providing foreign assistance to publish their data to the foreignassistance.gov webpage, the legislative and executive branches of government become partners in working to ensure transparency, and thus accountability in our foreign assistance. That is a win-win for both U.S. taxpayers and people across the globe who receive our aid. Locking in important steps to improve our foreign assistance seems ripe for action now, and I am hopeful that as we approach December of 2015, enactment of the Foreign Aid Accountability and Transparency Act won’t be a narrow miss as it was when I staffed this bill, but rather a full endorsement of foreign aid transparency and accountability by both the House and the Senate.

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This is a guest post from Lori Rowley, Co-Chair of MFAN’s Accountability Working Group and Director of Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center. This post is part of MFAN’s ACCOUNTdown to 2017 Dialogue Series.

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