A man unloads USAID-donated wool blankets bound for Georgia in 2008. MFAN co-chairmen say USAID is now making long-term program decisions based on so-called country development cooperation strategies, five-year frameworks that prioritize local needs and local accountability. Photo by: Chuck Simmins / CC BY-NC-SA

By David Beckmann, George Ingram and Jim Kolbe

Transparency is never more important than when policymakers are confronting enormously consequential budget decisions. With the battle lines already drawn for a nasty, partisan fight, it is worth paraphrasing Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s famous line, “Sunshine cures all.” Transparency supplies the information that allows the public to better understand and support policies and provide informed critique. 

Few decisions will have as large a global impact as the ones policymakers will soon make about the fate of the international affairs budget and the programs it funds, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and Feed the Future, which have helped improve countless lives over the last decade. Increased transparency, particularly on the part of the Obama administration, will go a long way toward ensuring that we come out of this budget round with the resources and momentum it will take to capitalize on progress toward development outcomes and reform.

The Obama administration has built on work by the Bush administration to reshape the development bureaucracy into a more efficient and results-oriented machine, in part by increasing transparency. The White House launched www.foreignassistance.gov, which is methodically making more comprehensive data about budget request and program outlays accessible to the public. Last fall, the administration also signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, committing the U.S. government to publish up-to-date development data alongside other bilateral and multilateral donors. Congress has also got into the act, with Reps. Ted Poe and Howard Berman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs having introduced the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act late last year. 

On other fronts, the Obama administration has opened the books on its effort to change the business model for U.S. foreign assistance, and it appears that real progress is being made.

Several months ago, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a group of foreign assistance reform advocates, challenged the U.S. government agencies involved in development to provide public information about how they were implementing the core tenets of President Barack Obama’s landmark 2010 presidential policy directive on global development. The PPD called for more focus on economic growth, recipient country ownership, private sector partnerships, coordination and accountability.  

To date, four key agencies have responded to MFAN’s call: the U.S. Agency for International Development, Millennium Challenge Corp., Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Peace Corps. We have assessed the agencies’ responses based on criteria laid out in our own reform agenda, ”From Policy to Practice,” including recommendations on eliminating wasteful regulations, partnering better with donors, and responding to local priorities. What we heard back is that reform is taking root:

  • USAID is now making long-term program decisions based on so-called country development cooperation strategies, five-year frameworks that prioritize local needs and local accountability.

  • MCC has new policies for threshold programs that help countries make smart reforms to bolster their eligibility for grants from the agency. This new policy was used to support Tunisia with its democratic and economic transition following the Arab Spring.

  • More than 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers helped to implement the Stomping out Malaria campaign in Africa, done in collaboration with the President’s Malaria Initiative, by assisting communities and distributing bed nets.

  • Through the recently launched African Competitiveness and Trade Enhancement initiative, USTR is helping to provide technical assistance to sub-Saharan African countries to enhance regional and global trade, while growing exports to the U.S. under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA.

Shining a light on the bureaucracy is important, but the administration could do much more to highlight success stories, because development results are more apparent than ever, as Michel Sidbe, the Malian chief of UNAIDS, noted in a recent Huffington Post piece:

[Africa’s] economy is growing at around 6% annually… Lack of roads is no longer a barrier to information - mobile phones are the new drumbeat. Democracy is becoming firmly entrenched. More children are in school, especially girls, than ever before. Poverty is on the decline. Access to health care has increased… AIDS is beginning to recede, country by country, village by village.

Although the emerging African success story is being driven indigenously, Americans can take enormous pride in the fact that our support – and the example of transparent democracy we have set – has helped make this progress possible.

A lot of hard work remains to be done. Increasing transparency will ultimately bolster support for U.S. development programs and strengthen their impact. It’s up to policymakers, development practitioners and average citizens to bring ever greater sunlight into foreign assistance.

Rev. David Beckmann, a 2010 World Food Prize laureate, is the president of Bread for the World. George Ingram is chairman emeritus of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign. Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona, is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. They are co-chairmen of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

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