USAID Moving On Up on Aid Transparency

In 2014 USAID ranked at the bottom of the “Fair” category of Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, narrowly missing joining a few fellow U.S. government agencies that were rated as “Poor.” Less than a year later USAID has jumped into the “Good” category. That improvement, noted in PWYF’s 2015 U.S. Aid Transparency Review, clearly demonstrates that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Thanks to the hard work of a dedicated group of USAID staff, USAID is now on track to meet its commitment to fully publish its aid information to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard.

How did USAID get here?

In 2014, USAID began taking some important steps to improve its aid transparency. Two efforts in particular are worth highlighting:

  • The Aid Transparency Pilot Country StudyThis study assessed the demand for aid information in three partner countries, as well as the capacity of local stakeholders to use that information. While the study reported that awareness of existing aid information is low, it also found that there is a demand for this data from a variety of local actors, including government representatives, the media, CSOs, academia and private companies.Why does this matter? First, it will hopefully convince skeptics that publishing data to IATI is not just a meaningless reporting exercise. People need, and want, this data. Second, local actors had clear feedback on what information would be most useful. USAID is now using this input to improve its aid transparency.

  • The IATI Cost Management Plan (CMP): USAID faces a number of obstacles in publishing to IATI, not least of which is poor information management systems. A commitment to transparency alone wasn’t going to get USAID past these challenges – the agency needed a plan. In 2014, USAID formed a small, technical working group to do just that. The result is a four-phase plan that clearly lays out what USAID needs to do to improve its IATI data.Given the feedback reflected in USAID’s pilot study and in this recent Development Gateway report on partner countries’ use of IATI , it looks like USAID is prioritizing the right things (and not just the things that will get it more points on PWYF’s Index). These include:

    • Evaluations and results

    • Activity titles and descriptions in recipient country languages

    • Activity objectives

    • Sub-national location information

    • More useful contact information

What next?

USAID’s actions over the past year and a half are a welcome sign that the agency is taking its aid transparency commitments seriously. If the potential of aid transparency is to be realized however, USAID must take additional steps. My two recommendations?

  • Improve Data Quality: Most of the improvements USAID plans to make relate to increasing the number of data fields the agency reports on. As USAID diplomatically notes in its CMP, “the quality of USAID’s IATI data continues to be an issue.” As a non-USAID employee, I’m allowed to put it more bluntly: the current quality of USAID’s data makes it largely unusable. To address this problem, the CMP recommends the establishment of another working group focused on data quality. USAID’s senior leadership should act on this recommendation immediately and ensure that the resources needed to make data quality improvements are available.

  • Increase Awareness of Aid Data: USAID’s pilot study frankly states that “as long as important stakeholders are not aware of the existence of… current aid information, the demand for IATI data will remain low and the objectives of the aid transparency efforts of the [U.S. government] will not be achieved.” To date, many of the U.S. government’s efforts to raise awareness have been focused on a domestic vs. in-country audience. The pilot study makes a number of recommendations on what USAID could do to remedy this, which the agency should take seriously.

In 2011, donors committed to fully publishing their aid information by December 2015. Though a challenging task in and of itself, donors cannot stop there. For aid information to make a difference, data must be of high enough quality, and people must know about and have the capacity to use it. These are the things USAID should focus on next.