State Department deserves cautious applause for aid transparency

KIGALI, RWANDA

Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the U.S. will join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) should be applauded. In the grand scheme, transparency might be a particularly wonky sticking point outside mainstream advocacy (after all, George Clooney has yet to start a campaign on budgetary reporting). However, making aid open and accessible is crucial to its effectiveness.

Hillary ClintonU.S. Department of State

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, on Nov. 30, 2011.

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The IATI is a voluntary initiative started in 2008 to establish a common standard for publishing among aid donors. With the recent commitment of the United States and Canada to join, 80 percent of aid flows are now covered by the initiative. Joining the IATI is a step in the right direction. However, a lot of work will need to be done in order to actually make our aid transparent, given the sorry state our agencies are currently in.

Without full transparency, measuring the impact of aid is tricky. Honest, independent third-party analyses become nearly impossible and accountability to beneficiaries and taxpayers is crippled. Sadly, this has been the norm for U.S. foreign assistance for decades. Despite demanding accountability and transparency from partner governments, we have yet to require the same of ourselves. While the U.S. is by far the largest aid donor, most of our agencies remain at the bottom of transparency rankings.

Myriad U.S. federal agencies provide overseas assistance with a number of different standards of accountability. Although the “Foreign Assistance Dashboard” provides a visual breakdown of what Congress has appropriated, it lacks information on who actually receives the funding (government agency, private charity, local organisation) and what it is used for.

The United States Agency for International Development, the largest U.S. donor, rarely ever releases impact evaluations and offers little in the way of disaggregated data. For instance, trying to find historical disbursements on the Dashboard for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (the largest aid recipients) brings you to a screen explaining that no aid has been spent in these countries over the past decade.

Other agencies are even worse. The Treasury Department, which operates a little-known technical assistance program, scored a measly 10 percent on the last IATI survey of all donor agencies, barely beating the Chinese, Bulgarian, and Italian aid agencies, models for opacity all.

Joining the IATI will not be enough on its own. Signing a commitment is not the only step to achieving its goals. Deep changes in U.S. reporting mechanisms will need to occur. Continued pressure on donor agencies to implement these reforms will also be crucial, as those who remember the Monterrey Consensus will note that this would not be the first time that the US failed to implement what it signed.

Agencies will not only have to make aid information available, but they will also have to present it in a manner that provides serious detail for aid practitioners as well accessibility for non aid-wonks. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, an agency set up by the Bush administration to provide large capital injections to partner countries, offers a great model. It’s the only U.S. aid provider to rank in the top 10 of donors on the last IATI survey, with up-to-date reporting and surprisingly transparent impact assessment methodology.

Republican primary candidates and congressmen will probably find some bone to pick with the issue. It is hard to picture Mitt Romney — whose entire foreign policy platform seems to consist of regurgitating American Exceptionalism boilerplate ad nauseam — warming to the idea of following international standards of accountability. Likewise, Ron Paul, whose foreign policy ideas have won him the fleeting love of the GOP’s isolationist wing, seems convinced that any international enterprise’s primary goal is the destruction of American sovereignty. Doubtless his ilk will find little to like about following any set of international standards. Furthermore, as this policy is being implemented under the Obama administration, it is clearly a part of the Global Socialist Agenda.

Thankfully, as important as aid transparency might be, it remains an issue far too wonky for the primary candidates’ attention. They are too busy describing aid in absurdly broad brushstrokes or mentioning how the U.N. is trying to take away your guns.

For the wonks, though, Hillary Clinton’s announcement is a home run. If high-level policy makers are actually willing to talk about the nitty-gritty of the aid world, then perhaps we can see an improvement on the debate surrounding aid efficacy. Likewise, if accountability reforms are implemented and we begin to see published, accessible information on U.S. aid disbursements, this will open a huge part of previously inaccessible data to public research. Let’s just hope it actually happens.

Alex Merkovic-Orenstein is a consultant to the United Nations in Kigali, Rwanda. He holds a Masters in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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