10 years of the Aid Transparency Index: How did the United States fare?

July 13, 2022 marked the 10th anniversary of the Publish What You Fund Aid Transparency Index. This year’s 2022 index included 50 of the world’s top donors, including four US entities – the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Department of State- States (State) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). MCC, USAID, the state and PEPFAR have been included in the index’s assessment since the first iteration in 2012, providing a rare opportunity to look back on a decade of performance.

The Index is the only independent global assessment of donor transparency in aid and development finance. It is the product of six months of intense data collection, consultation with stakeholders, including Index donors, and data assessment. The review involved sampling approximately 13,000 documents and reviewing 147,310 projects with transactions totaling $221.7 billion. The end product is a ranking of donors on a scale of 100 to 0, with categories ranging from “very good” to “very poor”.

The U.S. Commitment to Transparency

Legal and policy commitments to aid transparency made by the United States have grown stronger over the past decade. In 2011, the United States officially joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a voluntary, multi-stakeholder effort to report aid information to an open data standard. In 2016, Congress passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA), which required all agencies involved in providing U.S. foreign assistance to report, at the activity level, at least once per quarter at ForeignAssistance.gov. With the BUILD Act of 2018, which created the US International Development Finance Corporation, Congress made FATAA reporting requirements applicable to this new US development finance institution.

This firm commitment to strong U.S. foreign assistance reporting is essential given the global reach of U.S. policies and programs. The world is facing an ongoing global pandemic, with uneven impacts on vulnerable populations, and an unprecedented food crisis, greatly exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and leaving large numbers of people facing hunger and starvation. The growing effects of climate change are only compounding these problems. This has put a strain on already scarce resources, underscoring the need to ensure efficient investments with a clear vision of how to make the most of every dollar. Given the role of the United States as the largest bilateral donor in the world, we should expect the United States to lead the charge when it comes to transparency.

Performance of US Agencies

The index’s US performance was mixed, as it has been for the past decade. The MCC, which has always been very successful, was once again the first American agency and the first bilateral agency in the world. After years of mixed performance, PEPFAR showed significant improvement, ranking second in the United States, jumping nearly nine points from 2020. USAID, which had a strong performance in 2020, lost ground, dropping 12 points. State, which in 2020 reached the “good” category for the first time, slipped five points and returned to “fair”.

As with previous indices, the release of the Aid Transparency Index was accompanied by a global report as well as a US Brief. The US rating summarizes performance, but focuses on recommendations for improvement for each of the US agencies.

Recommendations

Some of the recommendations have been around for a long time and show a persistent failure to improve.

  • For example, basic state project-level information (titles, descriptions, and other basic information) has been a perpetual problem. The time has passed for making improvements to the fundamentals of project-level information. Other fundamental issues, including publication of tenders and contracts, pose challenges for the state, USAID, and PEPFAR.
  • Performance information, such as evaluations and outcome data, has lagged for most agencies, although MCC information is of high quality.
  • Subnational information (data important to many users) needs improvement for USAID, the state, and PEPFAR.
  • Timeliness is an important element of data quality. Only USAID publishes its information monthly, which is now the norm around the world. In the past, the four agencies published on a monthly basis. Especially given today’s global needs, this should be a requirement for all US agencies in the future.

Progress

There was good news. A new indicator has been introduced in this index which allows a better identification of the relationship between funders, implementers and coordinators. US agencies answered the call, with USAID, PEPAR and the state all among the top ten performers (MCC was exempt from this test for the 2022 index). Well done!

Finally, many thanks for completely consolidating both official USAID and state websites into one usable website. This effort has been going on for years, an effort in which we have spilled a lot of ink. But the outcome is good for users and taxpayers, and we look forward to continued improvements in project-level data usability and facilitating engagement with local stakeholders around data.

Agency Policy Roundtable

Brookings and Friends of Publish What You Fund hosted a joint policy meeting with all agencies for further discussion of the evaluation. We do this in part because it’s not clear that US agencies are collaborating on releasing the data. The session creates time and space to think about not only how best to improve the data, but also how to improve its accessibility to a range of stakeholders. This is all the more exciting as the release of the index comes at a time when the ITAI dataset has reached a critical level of maturity and quality. We shared some of the innovative research undertaken by Publish What You Fund, particularly on tracking funding for women’s equality and empowerment, as well as ideas for further use of IATI data, including the tracking local ownership, unpaid care and climate finance. The EU launch of the index also contained several very useful examples of how IATI data is being used to improve research and results. These examples demonstrate the range of useful and granular research opportunities, all of which can improve effective decision-making, allocations, and investments.

Commitment and use of data

A good quality publication is a crucial first step. But it is important that agencies actively use the data and engage with stakeholders on the information, especially local actors, with the aim of improving development results. A useful step in this direction was the addition of USG data to the presentation of IATI data on the Beyond the US Government tab on ForeignAssistance.gov (previous version did not). Adding US government data provides access to IATI data on the assistance that all donors provide to a country.

Now that it is possible to use IATI data for policy-making, program management, research and engagement with local stakeholders, the effort of all donors to provide data reliable IATI is a particularly profitable investment.

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