A big hurrah to the MCC and congratulations to Treasury and USAID!
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is to be celebrated, not just for leading the American pack, but for coming in first in the overall global rankings. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Treasury Department are to be congratulated for showing significant improvements since 2012. The Department of State, Department of Defense and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) clearly have a lot of catching up to do.
At the policy level, the commitment and leadership of the Obama administration—through several White House directives instructing all agencies to embrace open government and open data that is machine readable and readily usable—has been superb. It has demonstrated it understands the value of making U.S. assistance data publicly available through the innovative Foreign Assistance Dashboard and subsequent agreement to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).
Why, and for whom, is making assistance data publicly available so important? Publicly available data:
- Helps donors make more informed decisions, manage their programs better and coordinate their aid efforts with other donors’ assistance.
- Enables recipient governments to know where assistance is going in their country so they can better allocate their own budget resources.
- Allows citizens to be better informed on government decisions and therefore better able to hold government accountable.
- Feeds the private sector with a new resource on which to create new business services. Publication to IATI is picking up steam.
Donors accounting for 86 percent of official development finance (ODF) are committed to publishing to IATI by the end of 2015 and those accounting for 69 percent are now reporting some information to the IATI registry. Only a relatively small number of U.S. civil society organizations, such as Plan USA, have committed to publishing their data to IATI. A few leading foundations such as Gates and Hewlett have joined IATI as well.
As aid transparency is a departure from business as usual (the typical opaqueness of government), the initial decision to make U.S. assistance data publicly available was not an easy one, and the Obama administration deserves due credit. With more than 25 U.S. government agencies involved in providing assistance, implementation, despite considerable effort, has been more difficult. This is where attention now needs to double down.
In the first three years of the dashboard, a mere five agencies—USAID, MCC, State, Treasury and Defense—have posted only partial data. They were joined just this week by the African Development Foundation. Where is the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and data-driven PEPFAR? Where is activity level data, so that users can determine where and how the aggregate level assistance is being used? Where are the links to planning and evaluation documents?
The U.S. has pledged full implementation of its commitment to IATI by 2015. At the current pace it likely will miss that goal. The MCC and Treasury, admittedly with more simplified data sets, have demonstrated that compliance with IATI is possible. USAID has also provided evidence of the results of good effort.
There are three problems. One, most agencies have not made their data public, either to the dashboard or to IATI. Two, the U.S. has not committed to providing data for some of the most relevant IATI fields, such as activity budgets and results and links to project and performance documents, although agencies have the data and can publish it. MCC has done so already. Three, the current process for posting U.S. data to the IATI registry is for the data to first go to the dashboard. However, data that agencies are providing are not being posted to the IATI registry in either a timely fashion or in complete, data rich form—the dashboard is not using the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s XML format but, rather, spreadsheets that lose some of the detail of the data.
The U.S. can fulfill its obligations through three steps:
- Establish precise plans and timetables for each agency to publish its assistance data to the dashboard and IATI.
- Provide data for the full range of IATI fields, including data at the activity level and on results, as the MCC has done.
- Allow full data sets to be posted to IATI. There are two alternatives for accomplishing this goal. One, the dashboard can adopt the IATI standard. Alternatively, eliminate the requirement that agencies send their data through the dashboard. Accept the fact that the dashboard is valuable for what it was originally designed for—collecting and presenting U.S. assistance data—and remove it as a hindrance to agencies publishing their data directly to IATI.
Finally, nongovernment aid providers and implementers need to step up and join the transparent data era. In this day, opaqueness should be a thing of the past for all of us.