Will the new Congress be serious about accountability?

When members and their staff think about foreign aid, they usually envision humanitarian and development assistance and the agencies that implement it: the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the State Department.

But aid that is designed to save lives and reduce poverty is only a portion of the overall U.S. assistance portfolio. Out of a total fiscal year 2015 budget request of $32 billion for foreign operations, $8 billion is for security assistance — mostly in the form of military equipment and training — and another $5 billion is designed to provide political support for friends and allies. This doesn’t even include aid carried out directly by the Department of Defense (DOD), such as the $4 billion Afghanistan Security Forces Fund or the $5 billion the president requested for a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.

{mosads}Given the Pentagon’s prominent role in building everything from foreign militaries to Ebola treatment facilities, American taxpayers have a right to know how this money is being spent and what is being achieved. Yet once again this year, the DOD earned a “poor” rating in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. The index ranks major international donor agencies on the degree to which they share aid information in a manner that is timely, comprehensive, comparable and accessible. Among U.S. government agencies, the MCC came in first (making it the only U.S. agency among the top seven internationally), followed by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID the State Department, and the Treasury Department. The Department of Defense received the lowest score of the bunch, ranking 38 among 68 donors analyzed. Its performance was particularly poor in the area of providing information about results, conditions and impact appraisals.

Why does it matter? As the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) explains in a recent paper on aid effectiveness, if we want to ensure that our aid has maximum positive impact, then we need data that can be used to compare costs and benefits across programs and to obtain feedback from local stakeholders. Aid transparency not only improves coordination within and between governments, but helps to build stronger, more resilient and more capable partners by empowering civil society to serve as a check and balance on executive authority.

Let’s be clear: We are not talking about classified programs or sensitive data. All of this information is already supposed to be made public, most notably under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, signed into law on May 9. It’s just that DOD, like many other government agencies, is way behind the curve in putting out the information in a useful way. Because the Pentagon has made it so difficult to access the figures, the Center for International Policy has created the Security Assistance Monitor, a database to track information that ought to be documented in the State Department’s foreign assistance “Dashboard.”

Beyond just revealing what is spent and where, however, good stewards of taxpayer funds should require that aid programs be subjected to routine monitoring and rigorous evaluation. It’s not enough to wait until an inspector general digs up the dirt after money has already been lost or wasted. Right from the start, we must be clear about what we’re trying to accomplish, why we think a particular intervention will lead to that result and how we will measure success.

That, in fact, was one of the conclusions of a report by the State Department’s own International Security Advisory Board, which found that “the U.S. should implement a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation process for its security capacity building programs, measuring effectiveness against defined goals in terms of basic national objectives, not just value for money or inputs provided.”

While the State Department already has an evaluation policy, it’s not clear whether or to what extent the advisory board’s recommendations are being implemented, because neither the evaluations themselves nor any information about them has been made public. Meanwhile, the DOD has waged a bitter behind-the-scenes battle against legislation that would direct the president to set guidelines for the establishment of measurable goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans for U.S. foreign assistance.

Particularly in light of recent reports that the coup leader in Burkina Faso had received counterterrorism and military intelligence training from the United States, and that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) evolved from a U.S.-run prison camp in Iraq, it’s time to start holding our security assistance and military operations to the same standards of accountability as our development and humanitarian aid.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant and serves as co-chair of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

Tags Department of Defense Department of State Development aid DOD International development

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