The U.S. Commits to the Right Things in Foreign Aid Transparency: Increasing Quality and Use

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Last week, the U.S. government released its third National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Included in the plan is a strong commitment to improving foreign aid transparency. The commitment focuses on what matters most in aid transparency at this point: improving the quality of the data published, and increasing the use of that data. The task now for the many U.S. agencies involved in foreign assistance is to come up with concrete, time-bound, and resourced plans for meeting this commitment.

This is the third time a commitment on aid transparency has been included in a U.S. national action plan for the OGP. While some might view that repetition as a shortcoming, InterAction sees this as an (accurate) acknowledgment by the Administration that the job is not yet done. The three commitments also reflect the Administration's incremental progress on aid transparency. The first plan called for the development of government-wide standards for reporting foreign assistance data. The second tasked agencies with improving their processes for publishing aid data, and specifically committed six agencies to increasing the amount of data published.

In this third plan, the U.S. government commits to improving the “quality, comprehensiveness, and completeness of foreign assistance data.” This focus on quality is critical: though agencies began publishing data in 2013, data quality overall is still quite low, significantly limiting use. Taking into account the needs of potential users, the plan highlights four types of data as a priority: subnational geographic information, project documents and information, results data, and sector codes. This prioritization of user needs is welcome, as is the specificity on the improvements users should expect to see.

As noted above, the government also commits to building stakeholders’ capacity to use data. A starting point will be to raise awareness of the availability of U.S. foreign assistance data, a major barrier to use for aid data in general. Another important step will be to make the data more accessible, including by disseminating the data through offline methods.

This two-part commitment reflects the input of civil society (including our own), as well as what USAID and others have learned through their research. Taken together, it holds the most potential of any of the U.S. government’s commitments to achieve the promise of aid transparency: to “promote effective and sustainable development” and to support “evidence-based, data-driven approaches to foreign aid” (NAP 3.0). The challenge now is to ensure that this commitment is more than just words on paper. Like many of our colleagues, we look forward to working with U.S. agencies to make sure we get from point A to point B.