The black hole of Pentagon foreign aid

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During Sunshine Week, Americans celebrate access to public information as a cornerstone of democratic accountability. Only by knowing what our government is spending, and what policies it is carrying out on our behalf, can we ensure that officials are upholding the letter and spirit of the law and the will of the electorate.

One area much in need of sunshine this year is the distribution of international humanitarian, development and security aid by the Pentagon — assistance that used to be provided almost exclusively by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Over the past decade, the Department of Defense (DOD) has played an increasingly prominent role in foreign assistance, but unlike the civilian agencies, it has not been held to account for its spending or results. Soon, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will have an opportunity to change that.

Under more than 20 separate authorities for providing arms, equipment, training and advice internationally, the Pentagon has spent $8 billion to 10 billion a year in the last few years for direct assistance to more than 180 countries. That doesn't include the amount spent on dozens of other DOD security cooperation authorities or the hundreds of billions spent each year on maintaining the U.S. military presence around the globe.

The problem is that most of these Pentagon aid programs, while intended to bolster the capacity of foreign militaries to protect and serve their own people, are mostly opaque — both to the American taxpayers who fund them and to the local populations who are supposed to benefit from them.

Unlike civilian programs funded through the State Department and foreign operations budget, military-run foreign aid programs are not fully reported either to the foreign assistance "Dashboard" — a public website of all U.S. foreign aid funding — or to Congress. Although there are some efforts to improve this reporting, DOD has consistently scored poorly on Publish What You Fund's "Aid Transparency Index," which in a 2015 review called the DOD a "big disappointment" and rated it "off track" and "moving in the wrong direction" on aid transparency.

Whereas the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees receive annual "Congressional Budget Justifications" that detail past and proposed foreign aid spending on a country-by-country basis (and are made available online to the public), neither those committees nor the Armed Services Committees receive a clear and complete picture of Pentagon-funded security cooperation programs. In a December 2015 report on "Building Partner Capacity," the Congressional Research Service found it impossible to determine how much the DOD spends on strengthening foreign security forces.

This is a particular problem because some DOD-funded programs overlap with what the State Department and USAID are doing. In 2013, an official advisory panel found that the Pentagon-funded nearly twice as much assistance to foreign police, military and other security forces as did the State Department. For fiscal year 2012, the DOD provided $16.2 billion in equipment, training and weaponry through eight different programs, compared to $8.8 billion in military and police assistance funded by civilian agencies.

Providing details about non-classified security cooperation programs is not merely a matter of the public's right to know. It's a matter of ensuring that taxpayer dollars are well-spent by eliminating waste and duplication, focusing resources on the countries that are the most important and the programs that have the best track records, learning lessons from rigorous evaluation and aligning goals with resources. If Pentagon leaders don't have this information at their fingertips, it is difficult for them to make evidence-based decisions and ensure that strategic priorities are being respected. And if they do have this information, but are declining to share it with Congress, then we have a much bigger problem.

Regrettably, past efforts to compel the DOD to provide comprehensive data on its security cooperation programs have been unsuccessful. A legislative requirement that the DOD submit country-by-country reporting of prior-year assistance was rebuffed, with the Defense Department failing to provide this information by the date established in law, and unlikely to do so before Congress begins consideration of next year's defense budget.

Ironically, the most comprehensive, public information currently available on DOD-funded assistance is compiled by a tiny private project, the Security Assistance Monitor. It's time for Congress to stand up and do its job by demanding a full accounting of Pentagon spending on foreign aid.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, co-chair of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a board member of the Center for International Policy. Goodman is director of the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy.