Why US aid transparency reform may not pass

The U.S. Capitol dome rises on top of cherry blossoms. The U.S. Congress is considering a legislation that would improve foreign and transparency and accountability. Photo by: MudflapDC / CC BY-NC-ND

This year’s passage of aid transparency reform in Congress could hinge on exactly how much disclosure lawmakers will seek on U.S. security assistance and other sensitive programs in countries like Syria and Egypt.

Congress will likely consider cementing in law Obama administration efforts to improve foreign aid transparency and accountability — although with a budget showdown looming and much attention focused on the crisis in Syria, it’s anyone’s guess when a version of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act will advance toward the president’s desk, George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Devex.

The bill, introduced by House Rep. Ted Poe of Texas and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio after it failed to pass last year, instructs the administration to “establish guidelines regarding the establishment of measurable goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans that can be applied with reasonable consistency to United States foreign assistance.”

The big question mark, Ingram said, surrounds how rigidly U.S. lawmakers will seek evaluations — and disclosure of those evaluations — for security assistance and other sensitive programs that, if publicized, could put some aid recipients in danger or invite unwanted scrutiny of sensitive U.S. programs.

Those concerns have left some officials — especially in the Department of Defense — wary of putting evaluation requirements into law, even though most U.S. agencies engaged in foreign assistance already conduct program evaluations without a firm legal directive from Congress.

Implementation woes

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S Agency for International Development and other government bodies have increased the evaluation of aid projects, and made funding data available on the Foreign Assistance dashboard.

But although current policies are good, Ingram said, implementation has been uneven. Many agencies have been slow to post data to the dashboard, and some observers have complained data that does reach the dashboard is often presented in unhelpful formats or incomplete.

Foreign aid transparency legislation, if passed, could go a long way towards giving Congress the teeth to hold administration officials accountable for results.

Without legislative backing, there is no guarantee current transparency policies will outlive the Obama presidency, which has been admirably responsive to calls for foreign aid transparency and accountability, Ingram said, citing the administration’s authorship of a “top-notch” evaluation policy for USAID.

For legislation to pass both the House and the Senate, though, backers will have to find the right balance of strong oversight requirements and reasonable exceptions in limited, sensitive cases. The compromise, according to the Brookings Institution expert, will most likely to emerge from Capitol Hill, Ingram said, and give the secretary of State authority to exempt certain types of security assistance from evaluation.

Some administration officials appear eager to secure such exceptions, Ingram indicated, suggesting that it would be better to conduct evaluations for all programs — sensitive or not — and simply keep them classified in certain cases, much in the way the military currently conducts classified “after event assessments.”

Independent oversight

The bill’s current language provides plenty of room for negotiation and interpretation — specifically with regard to what kinds of evaluations would be required for various programs across the panoply of U.S. foreign assistance spending.

That margin for flexibility is not a source of concern, Ingram said, but a vital component of the legislation.

“There’s no way in legislation that you can ensure the credible implementation of what you’ve legislated,” he noted. “The way you do that is you ensure there is independent evaluation, and you ensure Congress carries out its oversight responsibilities… You need to fit the metrics to the particular program and to the particular goals that are being sought.”

Ingram suggested the U.S. Government Accountability Office might play a larger role in ensuring that evaluations carried out by executive agencies, while specifically tailored to address the outcomes foreign assistance programs seek to achieve, all have in common a commitment to being “independent, robust, and worth the money used to produce them.”

While government programs always face the risk that independent evaluations will uncover failures as well as successes and can be used as political fuel for lawmakers to slash foreign aid budgets if they desire, Ingram cited some recent success stories — like the Millennium Challenge Corp. — which was “born with a commitment to independent evaluation” and now enjoys relatively broad-based bipartisan support.

The current appropriations cycle has seen proposed cuts even to the popular MCC. Officials at this agency and others are hoping that lawmakers don’t take growing aid transparency as an opportunity to push for more cuts, but instead as a welcome commitment to delivering value for money.

Read more on U.S. aid reform online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.