Beneficiaries of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program in Mozambique. U.S. aid agencies lag behind when it comes to transparency and accountability. Photo by: USAID

With the Millennium Development Goals winding down this year and the launch of a new set of global goals, it is critical that both developed and developing country governments are held accountable for delivering on their promises.

New commitments to end extreme poverty and preventable diseases and ensure that all people, everywhere, have access to basic services and improved opportunities are noteworthy. But they’re ultimately only valuable if they directly generate transformational outcomes. While the U.S. government has taken positive steps to increase the accountability of its development efforts, it can and should do much more to ensure that its foreign assistance is being used smartly and effectively.

When the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network introduced its new policy agenda last spring, “The Way Forward,” we stressed that accountability is a vital component to building the capacity in developing countries necessary for enabling leaders and citizens to take responsibility for their own development. In practical terms, this means guiding spending priorities, making evidence-based conclusions about what works and what does not, and holding country leaders as well as donors accountable for delivering results.

Transparency of aid flows is equally important, not least of all because it enables both donor and developing countries to develop an accurate picture of the activities in progress and identify gaps where additional funds need to be directed. In Myanmar, for instance, which has seen a flood of assistance since its political and economic transition began in 2011, the government quickly realized the need to develop a simple management system to monitor the various aid flows. It joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which seeks to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.

In the U.S., some notable progress has been made to ensure that foreign assistance is more accountable, both to taxpayers here at home and to its intended beneficiaries in poor countries.

The U.S. committed to implementing the IATI standard, requiring that foreign assistance data be published in an open and easily usable format on a quarterly basis. The U.S. Agency for International Development established, and has begun to implement, an impressive evaluation policy that was first introduced in 2011. The Millennium Challenge Corp. has become the first U.S. agency in full compliance with IATI reporting and continues to publicly share information about how it embeds transparency into the culture of the agency. In addition, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and MCC are partnering to establish open-data hubs to drive evidence-based decision-making in partner countries.

Put differently, these hubs will use geolocated data to focus scarce U.S. resources where they are needed most. We also expect that Congress will introduce legislation soon that would significantly increase the transparency and evaluation of U.S. foreign assistance.

Despite this progress, however, the U.S. lags behind most major donor countries when it comes to transparency, evaluation and learning. At the end of this year, the U.S. will hit the deadline for meeting its commitment to IATI, and will likely fall short. While agencies like MCC are global leaders, and PEPFAR is making notable strides to meet the commitment, others like USAID and the State Department continue to lag behind. Despite strong congressional leadership and support from many inside the administration, some past legislative efforts to increase transparency and evaluation have stalled.

Furthermore, little progress has been made to ensure that citizens in partner countries have access to comprehensive information about aid projects, budgets and what other donor agencies are doing. Citizens in partner countries should be involved in the evaluation process and helping to define what counts as success, something the U.S. has not consistently encouraged.

With a new set of development goals looming on the horizon that will shape development efforts for the next 15 years, there are several concrete steps that the U.S. government can take this year to ensure that its own development efforts are fully transparent, effective and well-managed.

First, Congress should reintroduce and pass the Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act, which would establish uniform interagency guidelines — with measurable goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans — across all U.S. foreign assistance programs.

Second, U.S. agencies whose foreign assistance spending remains largely opaque — particularly the State Department and Defense Department — need to harness the necessary political will and technical expertise to overcome internal bottlenecks and report to IATI standards.

Lastly, both Congress and the administration ought to encourage agencies like USAID and the State Department to redouble monitoring and evaluations efforts and allow them the space to admit and learn from failure.

Taking these steps will make U.S. foreign assistance more effective, efficient and relevant. With foreign assistance totaling well under 1 percent of total U.S. spending each year, we need to make sure every penny counts, and is counted.

Devex, in partnership with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, is exploring the progress and potential of making U.S. foreign assistance more effective. To explore additional content, visit the Reform for Results website and tweet #Reform4Results.

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About the authors

  • Ben Leo

    Ben Leo is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and director of the Rethinking U.S. Development Policy initiative. Leo’s research primarily focuses on the rapidly changing development finance environment, with particular emphasis on private capital flows, infrastructure and debt dynamics. Prior to CGD, Leo served as a facilitator and technical expert in secession negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan for the African Union, and as the director and presidential adviser for African affairs at the White House.
  • Tom Hart

    Tom Hart is the North America executive director of The ONE Campaign, a policy and advocacy organization with millions of people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.