Amen to accountability in foreign aid
© Getty Images

In his first address to State Department staff, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told those assembled: “First, I believe that any organization runs best when all of its members embrace accountability.” And I say, Amen to that. 

Recognizing this same fact, Congress championed aid transparency and evaluation by enacting the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act one year ago. Yet, at a time when USAID’s policy capacity is vital to government accountability efforts, the agency’s Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau (PPL) is facing a 44 percent cut in the president’s proposed budget. 

Data transparency is not the obscure obsession of a few policy wonks.

ADVERTISEMENT

Without transparency there is no accountability. And without accountability there is no effectiveness. Transparency is an essential ingredient of U.S. foreign assistance effectiveness, yet it’s tough to preach transparency and increased accountability to Americans and developing country stakeholders, while at the same time diminishing our own tools for doing this critical work.

 

The U.S. government must encourage publicly available, high-quality, useable data from all aid stakeholders, including itself.

Without reliable data we have no way of understanding the magnitude of a problem or evaluating whether and how our programming is helping to address it. Organizations like Plan International, the one I head, live this challenge every day.

Our report, Counting the Invisible Girls, found that while we know how many girls are in school, we don’t know how many leave school for various reasons, like marriagepregnancysexual violence, school fees or lack of employment opportunities after school. Few credible statistics exist to show the real life challenges for girls under 15 worldwide, making this data deficit a real challenge for development. The “gender-data deficit” reduces the effectiveness of programs that are meant to help. It is up to all of us to help fill this data gap.

That’s why I’ve committed Plan International USA to publishing our aid information under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which centralizes timely data and standardizes reporting criteria. We have a ways to go at Plan when it comes to publishing all our aid data in IATI. But the 40 governments – including the U.S. – along with UN organizations and the World Bank that have committed to IATI, could all also do better with compliance. The U.S. has made strides in transparency through its website ForeignAssistance.gov, a central site for U.S. aid data. Still, more is needed from governments and NGOs alike: higher quality and more complete data to facilitate more robust learning about where foreign assistance is going, the impact it’s having, and how to improve programs.

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) – where I serve as a co-chair – recognizes the importance of continued progress on accountability, transparency, evaluation and learning – for improving aid effectiveness and advancing our values alongside our security and economic interests. That belief is reflected in our widely endorsed Guiding Principles for Effective Foreign Assistance.  

MFAN broadly defines accountability as three pillars: transparency, evaluation and learning. That means we need good data along with better information about aid’s goals and methodologies; and then we need to do more to share that information with others. So while the focus on getting as much published IATI is good, it’s not enough. We need better quality data and more investment in evaluation and learning. How productive are our aid investments? Are they sustainable? Are a project’s results lasting beyond the project itself?

“Ex-post” evaluations are simple

Wait a few years, then go back and see what’s going on with a completed project to understand its impact. Both Plan International and MFAN advocate for testing sustainability through ex-post evaluations. Programs that look successful upon completion can decline in just a few years, while programs that might have started out slowly may stand the test of time and contain the real best practices. What happens down the road, after the donors and NGOs have gone, can greatly enhance our understanding of what drives sustainability.

Like comprehensive data, ex-post evaluations remain too rare. But it is encouraging that the U. S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Food for Peace program completed and published 12 ex-post program evaluations from four countries. They found a high number of sustained and even improved programs several years out and discovered several practices that decreased prospects of sustainability and needed to be changed.

Cutting this capacity to monitor, evaluate and learn in our aid agencies is penny-wise and pound foolish. Congress and the administration should follow MFAN’s Guiding Principles and make smart investments to increase the information and impact of our aid. Only then can we achieve Secretary Tillerson’s vision of across the board accountability for results.

Dr. Tessie San Martin is president and CEO of Plan International USA and co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.