The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act: A Nonpartisan Bill that Upholds the Core Principles of Good Government

Congressman Ted Poe (R, Texas), along with original cosponsor Congressman Gerry Connolly (D, Virginia), today introduced H.R. 2638, the bipartisan Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. A nearly identical Senate bill, S 1271, was introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R, Florida) and Ben Cardin (D. Maryland).

The U.S. government has for the past 10 years, over two administrations, been on a deliberate path to improving the accountability and transparency of U.S. assistance.

The take-off was in 2003 with the Bush administration’s creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), with accountability and transparency embedded in its DNA – public availability of information and data on the criteria for country eligibility, its analytic methodologies, and evaluations; focus on results; and consultation with stakeholders and experts on policy issues.  

The Obama administration has sought to integrate these two principles throughout its assistance programs.  Transparency and accountability are prominent in the first-ever Presidential Policy Directive on Development, which sets forth the Administration’s approach to development. It has restored to USAID its former practice of conducting evaluation of its programs, this time emphasizing that evaluations be rigorous, independent, and a source for learning.  It also has begun to shore up USAID’s capability and responsibility in policy, planning, and budgeting so it can now be held accountable for its programs and results. It has created on-line the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to which all agencies are to post data and information on their foreign assistance programs. It committed to and has made an initial data posting to the registry of the International Aid Transparency Initiative.  

Leaders of both USAID and MCC have spoken to the need to be held accountable. MCC has made public its first project impact evaluations and USAID has released a series of evaluations and an accounting of the first-year progress on its suite of internal reforms called USAID Forward.

Why accountability and transparency? Accountability is critical to ensuring that public policy and decisions are consistent with the national interests and reflect the commitments that public officials have made to their citizens.  Transparency is correctly acknowledged for its disinfectant effect— corruption does not flourish in sunlight. Beyond that, it contributes to better informed government policy, makes citizens better informed by providing them a window inside their government processes and policies, builds ownership and support for government policies and action, and has in certain instances (e.g., GPS methodology and data) made available data and other information that has been a boon to the private sector and citizens generally.

Now, members of Congress are getting into this arena. The Poe-Connolly and Rubio-Cardin bills would codify into law the Obama administration’s policies on accountability and transparency. This may not sound very exciting or important, but it is significant. It would institutionalize and make legally binding what to-date has been administration practice, by ensuring accountability to the Congress and preventing reversal by a future administration. The bill would require all agencies involved in foreign assistance to have rigorous evaluations of their foreign assistance activities and to post to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard on a quarterly basis data and information on those programs.

In one area the bill would go further than existing practice by mandating evaluation not just of development and humanitarian assistance, which prior to the mid/late 1990s had been a common practice of USAID, but now also of security assistance. There has seldom or ever been any serious assessment of the implementation or impact of assistance provided to advance our security interests. For decades, security assistance has been provided on the rationale that it seems reasonable and serves a well-intended purpose. Now, if this bill becomes law, we should in a few years have some concrete evidence of what does and does not work and to be better able to design and target our security assistance.

The one concern is that the bill provides the secretary of state with a “national interest” waiver that could be used to exempt security assistance from the requirement of monitoring and evaluation. The Congress needs to be vigilant that this authority is used selectively and responsibly. However, the definition in the bill of “security sector assistance” restricts it to assistance that involves “the use of force” – essentially military and policy assistance. So, economic security assistance that is used for to further U.S. foreign policy and security objectives would not be covered by the waiver. This is a significant expansion of the scope of monitoring and evaluation – and therefore accountability for results – of our assistance programs.

The bill also emphasizes that what is important is not conducting the evaluations, but mining them for lessons learned—in other words, using them for feedback into how to better design and implement assistance programs.

This bill will make foreign assistance accountable and transparent, not just to the Congress but to the American people.  It will provide researchers, policy analysts, journalists, and interested citizens with a vast range of data that will make them better informed.

A similar bill by Representative Poe unanimously passed the House last December and just missed being taken up by the Senate. Let us hope the Congress recognizes that accountability and transparency are nonpartisan issues that are core principles of good government, and acts expeditiously to make accountability and transparency the law of the land.