Where’s the beef? U.S. aid lagging on transparency, says report

Where's the beef?

The United States government made progress on full transparency for its aid spending, but there is still work to be done, says a new report. A review published this week by Publish What You Fund shows major advances were made in the past year, particularly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, 4 out of the 6 agencies that dispense foreign aid money will not meet their goal of full transparency by the end of this year.

“Aid works when it is a tool in the hands of the local leaders who are bringing positive change to their communities,” said Raymond Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America, in a statement. “If local farmers and entrepreneurs in developing countries know more about where aid is directed and for what purpose, they can make complementary investments to leverage these dollars. Transparency ensures that aid is being used for maximum effect, and that citizens can hold their governments accountable for results.”

The 2015 U.S. Aid Transparency Review evaluates USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Defense, and the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). It is MCC that stands out as an exceptional organization when it comes to transparency.

“MCC had a head start,” explained Publish What You Fund CEO Rupert Simons, to Humanosphere. “Transparency and openness were baked into their founding.”

credit: publish what you fund

credit: publish what you fund

Agencies are scored based on the availability of information and commitment to transparency. Major strides were made by USAID in the past year because it began publishing more general planning and financial information. But there are still major gaps. Non of the aid information for Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cote d’Ivoire are available.

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The information is available, it is just about getting it out of current documents and publishing it according to the standards set by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

“These guys are committed to transparency, if they are not publishing something it is more likely an issue of human error than trying to hide something,” said Simons about USAID.

The aim of the report is the increase an overall understanding for why transparency is needed. Simons and other transparency advocates say that knowing where money is spent and how allows for better accountability.

“The money is actually not being spent inside the U.S., it is being spent elsewhere, it is not only the citizen of the U.S. who needs to know where the money is spent, it is also the people in the receiving country who needs to know,” he said.

And it harms recipient governments themselves. Officials working in governments receiving U.S. aid money struggle to access information about the money that comes into the country. They must contact the embassies of donor countries and navigate a web of bureaucracy to access individual documents that may provide the answers they are seeking. Citizens find it even harder to get information about the projects that are supposed to be helping them.

“What we need the citizens to know is when there is a project happening, who is paying for it and who is in charge of it,” said Simons. “The less people feel empowered, they less they feel they have influence over their politicians.”

credit: publish what you fund

credit: publish what you fund

Open and accessible data is a tool of empowerment. Simons, who previously worked with the Liberian government as a part of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, saw first hand the problems caused by a lack of transparent donors. For Libera, the roughly $500 million in aid money that enters the country is about equal to the federal budget. Coordinating programs is key for Liberia to continue developing, especially in the wake of the Ebola outbreak.

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“What you have to do is employ people to call up all the embassies to speak with them individually to know what they are providing. There is no obligation to be open and truthful,” he said.

“It is no wonder it is not spent effectively. It is not wonder you get the U.S. army building 1,000 beds in treatment units for the Ebola crisis and they finished when they are no longer needed.”

An analysis of the 10 most aid-dependent, low-income countries that receive high levels of aid from both the U.S. and European Union found that only 38 percent of U.S. development aid published to the IATI standard. Some $2.8 billion dollars are hidden in hard-to-access documents. Sierra Leone, Liberia’s neighbor who is still dealing with cases of Ebola, shows as receiving only $1 million from USAID according to its foreign assistance dashboard. Millions of dollars spent supporting the country have yet to be published.

“The Addis Financing for Development conference is just around the corner and the decisions made there have huge potential for development progress. Using accurate and timely data to track these new commitments puts the power into people’s hands to hold donors to account and make sure aid money is spent in the most effective way,” said Simons.

“This is why we are calling on all U.S. agencies to publish what they fund,”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.