President Barack Obama issued the US government’s first ever US Global Development Policy in September 2010. The policy clarifies that the primary purpose of US development aid is to pursue broad-based economic growth as the means to fight global poverty. The US Global Development Policy also offers a clear mandate for country ownership—that is, leadership by citizens and responsible governments in poor countries—is how the US government will support development. The US has been moving in this direction since the George W. Bush administration.
President Obama launched the opening salvo in the FY2015 budget process with his recently released request, and while some of his foreign assistance proposals seem destined to go the way of the cutting room floor, you certainly can’t fault the request for having a specific point of view. The FY2015 international affairs budget request is edgy (a word I’ve never used to describe a budget request) in what it chooses to prioritize and push for, given basically flat funding. Indeed the $50 billion request is actually 1 percent below enacted FY2014 levels due to a downsized Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The base International Affairs FY2015 request stands at $44.1 billion with an additional $5.9 billion for the OCO account.
Continued Commitment on Reform? A signature of this Administration has been to build on the reforms of the Bush era in bringing accountability and transparency to our foreign assistance programs. Last year the MCC scored highest on the Aid Transparency Index, making the Corporation the most open aid agency in the world. USAID Forward has led the way with a significant scale-up of its evaluation and learning capacity so we can better understand what impact our programs are making. Will we see continued investments in operating funds at USAID, State Department and other smart power agencies and what will happen with new efforts in science, technology and innovation?
The President has signaled that he wants to move past our current period of austerity that has defined White House and Congressional budgets for a number of years. What will this mean for foreign assistance and development issues? Will foreign aid still comprise just 1% of the total budget? Will it include dedicated funding for the President’s new Power Africa initiative? Where do administration initiatives such as Feed the Future, the Global Health Initiative, and other new ventures fit? My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy, but here’s where I think some of this will go.
The report praised the MCC’s progress on transparency, and congratulated the agency for publishing high-quality information in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an initiative working to make information about spending on development easier to access, understand, and use. It also pointed out that all of the MCC’s current Compacts and Threshold Programs are published in IATI XML on MCC’s website, and the information on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard includes planning, obligation, and spending data.
U.S. progress in terms of making data available is notable—and the State Department announced this week that the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) joined State, DOD, USAID, MCC, and Treasury in adding data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. But it is essential that the data be useful. Publishing to the IATI Standard, the only open data standard for aid information, ensures that data is comparable and usable for donors and recipients of aid.
Congress needs to understand that the dashboard and IATI are the tools it has been searching for. Members continuously complain about the opaqueness of foreign assistance – how much assistance is the U.S. providing, to what countries, for what purposes, in cooperation with whom, to what effect? Where is the information to explain to constituents how their tax dollars are being spent? Together the dashboard and IATI will provide this information.
The principles the President championed the first day of his Presidency are reflected in the reform and evaluation processes undertaken by key US development agencies – new and better data enables citizens to hold their governments to account, and transparency helps to make programs more efficient. But the commitments the US has made to aid transparency are stifled by the approach it has chosen to meet them. US development agencies need to be encouraged to publish what they can, as soon as they can.
Because we are living in times that require a fully integrated national security approach, the USAID administrator should become the president’s principal advisor for development and assistance (akin to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff role and associated linkage to the secretary of defense, but concomitant to the secretary of state) and a permanent member on the National Security Council.
During his time as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry (D-MA) became a vocal proponent for effective foreign assistance. As his confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of State gets underway, we wanted to take a moment to look back on some supportive statements made by Chairman Kerry over the last four years. We hope that Kerry will continue to hold onto his support for foreign assistance and the International Affairs account and look forward to seeing what his leadership may bring for U.S. development efforts.