Kudos to OMB for Strong Evaluation Guidelines, What’s Next for Implementation?

As mandated by the bipartisan Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016 (FATAA; P.L. 114-191), last month the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance to foreign aid agencies regarding the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of assistance programs. While we and the community remain deeply concerned about drastic budget cuts to development and foreign assistance, this guidance shows that the Trump Administration also fully intends to work with Congress to improve, these programs – both for the people across the globe they serve and for the U.S. taxpayers who fund them.

For those of us who advocate for reforming our nation’s foreign assistance programs to achieve greater effectiveness, the good news is that MFAN’s two reform pillars – Accountability and Country Ownership — are evident in the law and now in these guidelines.

Accountability

Importantly, the guidance covers all 22 federal agencies that conduct foreign assistance programs and which OMB already requires to report to the foreign assistance dashboard. By bringing all of these agencies under these new accountability guidelines, not just the largest federal agencies working on the ground in developing countries – such as USAID, State, DoD, MCC – but also the many others with a presence as well – including USDA, Treasury, CDC – there is a higher bar for improving the quality and effectiveness of their programs.

Specifically, the OMB guidance requires all 22 agencies to establish M&E policies with an emphasis on collecting baseline data at the early, design stages of programs in order to ensure accurate results. This requirement is key because too often monitoring and evaluating a program can become an afterthought that, if not properly planned at the outset, results in skewed or unreliable data and therefore misguided recommendations for future programming.

Ownership

The guidance also recognizes that for program sustainability, ownership will need to be embedded throughout programming.  It states that, “agency policies should encourage engagement of beneficiaries, partner country governmental or non-governmental stakeholders, and implementing partners in monitoring and evaluation processes where feasible.” As documented in a recent report by Save the Children and Oxfam America, some U.S. aid agencies are beginning to build ownership practices into their business models, but there is still a long way to go.  Without local engagement, the impact of our investments is more likely to be short-lived, and we will not achieve our goal of building the capacity of developing countries to the point where they can lead and finance their own development.

What’s Next?

We congratulate Director Mulvaney and his staff for a job well done on these guidelines. But before we conclude that foreign aid programs are now in good hands and bound for greater effectiveness, we note that the heavy lifting is only just beginning.

Right now, only four agencies – USAID, State, MCC and DoD – have monitoring and evaluation policies for foreign assistance programs in place. Much work remains within the other 18 agencies to establish these policies by the end of the year as called for in the OMB guidance and begin implementing them. Further, as demonstrated in a recent study, From Evidence to Learning:  Recommendations to Improve U.S. Foreign Assistance Evaluation, even among the four agencies that do have such policies implementation is sketchy at best, and may be extremely limited without leadership driving this effort.

Importantly, although the OMB guidance calls for agencies to provide adequate resources for M&E, we remain concerned that these resources will not be a priority given the administration’s FY19 budget request, which for a second year in a row recommends deep cuts across foreign assistance programs.  It will be extremely difficult to strengthen the impact and effectiveness of aid programs while at the same time reducing entire agency budgets such as State and USAID by 30 percent.

We plan to delve into what’s next for foreign assistance evaluation at our upcoming MFAN and The Lugar Center joint event.  We’ll hear from OMB on how they crafted the guidance, and how the three main aid agencies are implementing the new standards. We hope you can join us! Be sure to check out this space in the coming weeks for more perspectives on evaluation.

We are hopeful that the Trump administration will utilize these new guidelines to employ sound, evidence-based evaluations to strengthen aid programs, improve the lives of the people they are meant to serve, and contribute to a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable world. We look forward to working with the administration and Congress to support implementation of this important M&E framework.

Lori Groves Rowley is the Director of Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness Programs at The Lugar Center.

Nora O’Connell is Associate Vice President for Policy and Public Advocacy at Save the Children.

They Co-Chair MFAN’s Accountability and Country Ownership Working Group.

This piece was authored in conjunction with MFAN and The Lugar Center’s report: From Evidence to Learning: Recommendations to Improve U.S. Foreign Assistance Evaluation.

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