U.S. Leadership on Aid Transparency

See below for a guest post from Dr. David Hall-Matthews, managing director of Publish What You Fund, as he underscores the importance of implementing recent commitments made for international aid transparency standards and describes how the U.S. is uniquely positioned to lead on aid transparency globally.


As Publish What You Fund prepares our 2012 Aid Transparency Index, I am happily reminded of the progress made on U.S. aid transparency commitments in the last couple of years.

The real game-changer was the U.S. signing up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in Busan last November. By joining IATI, the administration has agreed with the global consensus that if aid is to ever truly be effective, it must also be transparent.

Partial information on aid exists somewhere, in some format, but it is impossible to see the crucial big picture across the 25+ agencies administering foreign assistance. We now have a clear sign from by far the largest single donor that an agreed standard to publish aid information is needed to help us answer vital questions on who is spending on what, how much, and where.

Another milestone came in September 2011, when the President put forward the Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan. This committed the U.S. to make foreign assistance information available in a timely manner and internationally comparable format.

In her speech at the OGP annual meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, ‘We now have a chance to set a new global standard for good governance and to strengthen a global ethos of transparency and accountability.’

This is the first step in the right direction.

Now we need to make these commitments come to life and fully embrace the President’s vision on aid transparency. The U.S. is now in a position to lead on the aid transparency agenda. When all agencies are publishing consistently to a common standard, it will help to improve—and demonstrate—the value of their aid. It will also help to encourage other, newer donors to improve their transparency.

So now is the time for the U.S. to institutionalize the progress it has made.

Concretely, this means agencies such as USAID, State Department, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) must start publishing the information they already hold in their internal systems and websites in the common format, as soon as decisions are made.

According to information collected on MFAN’s Policy to Action website, some progress to that end is being made. We know that under USAID’s new Evaluation Policy, the agency is committed to publishing evaluation reports within 90 days.

The MCC joined USAID and the State Department to publish data on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and is to date the only agency to publish obligation and expenditure data—setting a strong precedent for transparency in the U.S.

But for organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan, Haiti, or Liberia, knowing where money has been spent after the fact does not help—they need to know where money is going right now, when the funds will be disbursed and spent, and for what purposes.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a single website where tax-payers can see exactly how their tax dollars are spent—and for what purpose?

Now imagine the value of that information when it is compared against what other donors are doing. All of a sudden you start to get a clear picture of spending patterns in some of the most highly aid dependent countries. That is one of IATI’s main goals, but in order to make it happen, donors need to start putting information through the IATI Registry.

This is what takes us from one agency publishing in one particular format and on one particular website, to a common platform where—for the first time—information becomes compatible and comparable. This will be invaluable for recipient countries and development effectiveness.

Only then can we start to have pragmatic conversations about why a hospital is built in a rural town without a road leading to it, or why there are three donors working on preventive health care and none working on treatments or researching local medicine.  Aid has the power to radically transform lives, but its potential is not being fully realized because we do not know enough about how it is spent.

The U.S. is now making important decisions on how to implement these transparency commitments.  There are experts within agencies, the White House and OMB, working out how to meet the Presidential Policy Directive on Development, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, USAID Forward, the OGP and the Busan commitments on aid transparency.

At Publish What You Fund, we believe there is a simple answer—that all agencies administering foreign assistance must start publishing timely, comprehensive, and comparable information online to the IATI standard.


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