Pentagon will finally find out if it pays to assist foreign armies
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Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent more than $250 billion to strengthen the security forces of over 130 countries. Yet there is remarkably little information about what is working, how and why.

That is about to change.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense (DOD) unveiled a new policy for assessing, monitoring and evaluating the assistance it provides to foreign militaries. Drafted in concert with civilian experts who guided the development of similar policies at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department, the instruction will help DOD ensure that taxpayer dollars achieve their intended purposes.

The new policy starts by requiring initial assessments of the extent to which potential partners share U.S. strategic objectives and are likely to use U.S. aid responsibly. These assessments will consider not only relevant environmental, political, economic, social and cultural conditions, but also the country's respect for human rights and the rule of law.

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For the first time, security cooperation programs will be based on a clear description of the anticipated outcomes, a set of "specific, measurable, achievable, relevant/results-oriented, and time-bound" objectives, and a theory of change that explains why and how the outcomes are to be achieved. This alone represents a monumental improvement over the status quo.

 

In addition, rather than conducting one-time, standalone activities that may not add up to much, DOD will seek to integrate individual activities into unified, coherent, multiyear efforts to realize broader and more meaningful results. Those carrying out programs at the field level will be held responsible for monitoring progress, and a central Pentagon office will be charged with conducting evaluations, using internationally accepted standards for independence and scientific rigor.

Unclassified summaries of all evaluations will be made public unless they would cause "foreseeable harm" to the United States or a partner nation. Each of these elements will enable an evidence-driven approach to security cooperation so that policymakers are no longer obliged to make budget allocations on blind faith.

But the new DOD policy goes beyond instituting greater accountability for spending — it also promotes learning by requiring that evaluations are used to improve programs.

There is no point in doing evaluations if the findings and recommendations are disregarded.

A few questions are not fully answered by the new policy, such as how (and how robustly) evaluations will be funded, and which (and how many) of DOD's programs will be considered "significant security cooperation initiatives" and thus subject to the new requirements.

But these issues can be addressed as the policy is put into practice, and obstacles and limitations are identified. As the main author and driver of the policy, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Security Cooperation Thomas Ross Jr., explains in a recent blog post, the new assessment, monitoring and evaluation framework will finally give DOD tools it needs to measure whether its efforts are effective and to determine how to enhance them.

The adoption of DOD's framework now puts the State Department in the hot seat. Although both departments engage in efforts to build the capacity of foreign militaries, the DOD policy does not cover programs authorized and funded by the Department of State.

The State Department has its own evaluation policy, which covers security assistance, but most of the details are encapsulated in internal guidance documents that remain out of the public eye. It is difficult to know how closely the two policies are aligned.

It makes little sense for comparable programs to be measured by different standards, which is why there should be consistent guidelines for designing, monitoring and evaluating aid to foreign security forces. That’s one reason why enactment of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act was so noteworthy, and why its full and effective implementation remains a priority.

Diana Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a principal of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a Center for International Policy board member.


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