What will happen to aid transparency under Trump?

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

While open government has been a popular mantra in recent years, the nascent administration of United States’ President Donald Trump appears to be taking a different tack. Following in the footsteps of Trump’s refusal to release his personal tax statements or respond to conflicts of interest, his government has continued a path of making decisions behind closed doors and out of public view.

The U.S. has withdrawn from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a program that would have brought openness and accountability to the U.S. oil, gas and mining sectors. U.S. federal government agencies have been gagged from speaking with the public, while White House disclosure initiatives, including staff salaries, are still to be revealed.

Openness and transparency have been so poor that the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting accountable and transparent government and politics, has declared the first 100 days of the new administration among the worst for open government on record.

This leaves some wondering what the impact could be on the nation’s aid programs. For aid programs, openness, transparency and accountability are important terms that are associated with building public confidence in the program. But it goes further than that.

Open data, an important component of an open government, can increase the effectiveness of aid by helping administrators to understand where work has been conducted, interventions that have been successful and where gaps lie. Combined with international data or data from other donors, aid data paints an important picture of the globe’s ability to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.

What impact could a lessening of transparency have on aid programs and the ability to support monitoring and evaluation of the SDGs globally?

1. Lack of transparency and openness impacts aid effectiveness.

Aid programs are not run by a donor country alone. There are a range of partners supporting the implementation of programs and deliverables, including governments of developing countries, contracted staff, NGOs, research institutes and the private sector.

In Australia, for example, ongoing budget cuts to the aid program since 2013 meant that all programs needed to be assessed, to determine if they would be closed, cut or continued. The impact, according to a 2015 survey of aid sector stakeholders, was a loss of strategic clarity on the purpose and focus of the aid program, a loss of aid expertise and reduced transparency and community engagement.

A year after the initial budget cuts of 2013, some NGOs were still waiting to be informed of the impact cuts would have on their programs.

A government that is not transparent and open forgets that these partners need to be kept informed of proposed changes to aid programs and deliverables so they can manage their resources, budgets and roadmaps. Aid cannot be effective if partners are not aware of agendas and directions and truly part of a collaborative process.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now working to overcome issues of transparency and openness, including holding their inaugural aid supplier conference in February to begin the process of improved communications. But it has taken four years to get there.

Four years of lowered transparency, openness and accountability for the U.S. may produce a wound on the aid program that will take a long time to heal.

2. Lack of transparency and openness increases miscommunication on the benefits of foreign aid.

Already, there are concerning signs of lack of awareness by the U.S. public on their aid program. Last year, research by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, on average, respondents assumed that 31 percent of the budget was spent on foreign aid. Only 3 percent correctly guessed that less than 1 percent is spent on aid.

Reducing transparency and openness makes educating and informing the public an even more difficult process. Clear communication on the aid budget, where money is being directed, and aid outcomes are an important process in building awareness and public confidence.

USAID 'working with' White House to review budget priorities

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it is working with the White House on reviewing budget priorities as President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal looks likely to include steep cuts to foreign aid.

Equally important is transparency in selecting aid program partners, particularly as private sector partnerships increase in importance to fill funding gaps. With news last week that White House visitor logs would no longer be publicly disclosed, there is valid concern of the impact lobbyists could have on a raft of programs, including foreign aid. Partnerships entered into behind closed doors, with corporate objectives valued over development needs, will likely lead to aid programs increasingly operating out of public view. The value of aid is unlikely to be reported back to voters through these partnerships.

In pushing for a stronger budget, NGOs need to ensure there is strong public awareness and support. But this process is extremely difficult with a government that is actively creating barriers to public awareness on the process of government and its decision making.

3. Reduced data availability will impact the ability to monitor and report on the SDGs.

Data is widely being discussed in the development sector for an important reason: Without it, determining the success or failure of the SDGs would be based on anecdotal evidence. And anecdotal evidence can easily be manipulated by the need to demonstrate success.

Through the establishment of agreed-upon data collection methods, comparable information can be captured across programs and jurisdictions, allowing to see where interventions are working and where they are not. Most recently the first United Nations World Data Forum was held to discuss this matter.

But there are signs that open data has been dropping on the agenda of the United States Agency for International Development.

Statistics from data.gov shows that in March 2015, USAID published 134 datasets to the site for the month — their peak month for published datasets since statistics began being collected in March 2013. A total of 153 datasets were published for 2015. But since then, datasets published by USAID have slowly been declining. A total of five new datasets were published in 2016 and by March 2017, zero datasets have been published for the year to date. Datasets currently on the site, meanwhile, are also being poorly maintained, with many are leading to broken links, including datasets for the USAID Business Forecast, USAID Dollars Obligated and Dollars Spent and U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants.

While lack of leadership and prioritization of open data and transparency will be an important factor in making or breaking the U.S. open data agenda, funding will be equally important. USAID will need to prioritize programs and deliverables in the wake of expected budget cuts — and publication of timely and useful data may be demoted as a priority.

U.S. cuts to funding for United Nations programs will similarly see multilateral organizations needing to prioritize programs, and where major donors such as the U.S. and U.N. take the lead in demoting the value of data, other nations will follow. Flow-on effects could see reduced data or data quality impacting the ability to identify and address communities at risk of falling further behind the rest of the world.

And just like Australia, it make take years before processes to re-establish openness, transparency and accountability begin to take shape once again.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.