Getting the most out of foreign aid
© Getty Images

No wonder Americans are skeptical about foreign aid. They think we spend 25 times more than we actually do, they don't know what it has accomplished, and they are fed a steady diet of reports about waste, fraud and corruption.

ADVERTISEMENT
This puts members of Congress in an awkward position. Most of them know that diplomacy and development help create jobs here at home by opening new markets abroad. They understand that we can't keep Americans safe without helping other countries to counter terrorism, prevent nuclear proliferation and resolve conflicts peacefully. And they recognize that without U.S. assistance, poor countries will be less able to combat hunger and malnutrition, control the spread of pandemic diseases, and preserve natural resources.

The problem is, members haven't been given much in the way of data and evidence to prove it.

That is about to change. A bipartisan bill, introduced last week in the House by Reps. Ted PoeTed PoeThe art of the compromise Ryan transfers record M to House GOP's campaign arm in March House votes to move toward designating North Korea as state sponsor of terror MORE (R-Texas) and Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyBudget woes hinder US cybersecurity buildup Our IT system is dying: Here’s how President Trump can save it What Democrats want in shutdown fight MORE (D-Va.) and in the Senate by Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Rubio defends Trump: 'This whole flip-flop thing is a political thing' Rubio: Shutdown would have 'catastrophic impact' on global affairs MORE (R-Fla.) and Ben CardinBen CardinLawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March Live coverage: March for Science rally is underway Dems outraged over Spicer's Holocaust remarks MORE (D-Md.), would require the president to publish comprehensive, timely and comparable information about U.S. foreign assistance, and to ensure that aid programs are properly monitored and evaluated.

In short, American taxpayers will be able to learn where and how their foreign aid dollars are being spent, and what they're getting for it.

To be fair, the Obama administration has already taken important steps toward increasing the transparency and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the U.S. to participation in the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which maintains an online repository of aid data from all international donors, published in a common format. The State Department, with help from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), created a website — www.foreignassistance.gov — that displays U.S. foreign aid budgets and spending. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) pioneered the use of rigorous impact evaluations that not only explain what the results of a program were, but why those outcomes were achieved. Then USAID, and later the State Department, stepped up their commitments to conducting independent foreign aid evaluations and publishing them online.

But there is still a long way to go. Only a handful of the more than 20 agencies that carry out overseas programs report their spending to the foreign assistance website, and the information they do submit is often incomplete and unreliable. The most recent Aid Transparency Index, compiled by Publish What You Fund, ranked only one U.S. government agency (MCC) as "very good," two (USAID and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR) as "fair" and three (the State, Treasury and Defense Departments) as "poor."

On evaluations, the picture is still murkier. While the State Department and USAID are now doing more foreign aid evaluations, and making them public, their quality is uneven. Many other departments and agencies either don't require evaluations at all, or don't publish them. Whereas audits and investigations, conducted by inspectors general and other oversight bodies, are designed to determine whether funds are spent as intended, evaluations are designed to ensure that programs are achieving their desired outcomes — and if not, how to adjust them so they will.

Of course, it is unlikely that the average U.S. taxpayer will pore over the details of a particular aid program to determine whether the money was well spent. But local media and civil society organizations in beneficiary countries have a strong incentive to do just that. Given access to reliable and comprehensive aid data, they will be able let the world know if funding goes astray.

In the end, aid transparency is more than a matter of citizens' right to know. It's about harnessing data for good decision-making. It's about strengthening democratic processes in countries receiving aid. And it's about ensuring that U.S. foreign assistance has maximum positive impact.

There may not be much that Democrats and Republicans agree on these days, but making foreign assistance more effective ought to be one of them.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, co-chair of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.