How Open Are US Development Agencies? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

October 24, 2013

This is a joint post with Charles Kenny and Will McKitterick.

There is a growing paradox on the US aid transparency front. The US government is simultaneously home to the world’s most open and most opaque development agencies. And the chasm between them has grown wider over the last year. That’s our main takeaway from Publish What You Fund’s (PWYF) latest Aid Transparency Index rankings of 67 major donor organizations.

Transparency matters.  It helps recipients and contributors alike to hold donors to account.  And it helps everyone learn – it is very hard to know if aid is working if you don’t know where it is going and what it is meant to do. Transparency across agencies and through the entire chain from contributor to beneficiary is even more powerful. Take two recent examples: DFID’s development tracker, which allows you to follow the chain through for at least one agency, compared to the international aid effort to Haiti, where it is simply impossible to follow the chain down and immensely complicated to aggregate data across agencies (ask Vijaya Ramachandran and Julie Walz if you are in any doubt). 

Publish What You Fund ranks agencies both on what information they publish on their work and how they publish it – top marks go to agencies that publish both a lot of good quality (machine readable) data and do so according to internationally agreed (IATI) standards that make it easy to use and compare.

Here’s a snapshot pulled from PWYF’s new report, which shows how the US government’s five largest aid agencies (and one initiative) stacked up against their bilateral and multilateral peers.

Note: We've circled the five US agencies and one initaitive surveyed in this year's Index to highlight where they rank. 

Using PWYF’s 2013 Index, we’ve designed our own extremely modest scheme for classifying US agencies’ performance into the good, the bad, and the ugly (see table at the bottom). 

The Good – MCC, USAID, and Treasury: Amongst US agencies, the MCC is in a category of its own – now ranking as the most transparent development organization in the world. It got there by taking deliberate steps to improve both the scope and quality of its data publications (see their Open Data Catalog). Compact and project information is now available in IATI XML format and includes a number of “added-value” fields. The latter go above and beyond what the US government promised in its implementation schedule last year. So, a hearty congratulations to the dedicated MCC staff that delivered this impressive achievement. It is a point of pride and something to protect next year.

USAID and Treasury also improved their Index rankings this year by publishing data in the IATI format, jumping 5 and 15 spots respectively. USAID further benefitted from its publication of over 50,000 transaction records, which provide a more granular view of its assistance efforts. But as we’ve mentioned before, there’s a big difference between “data dumping” and providing user-friendly information for development stakeholders’ consumption. High quality data means meeting the entire IATI standard – including activity budgets, accurate sector and project titles, and clear links between financial data and actual projects. USAID is definitely moving in the right direction, and for that, they get a “good” ranking. But, there is still a lot of room for improvement looking ahead to PWYF’s Index next year.

The Bad – DoD and State: The Departments of Defense and State remain lackluster contributors to the USG’s aid transparency efforts. Both have published minimal (and aggregated) data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and IATI. Defense has at least upped its ranking over the past year, while State has hardly even managed that – particularly disappointing since it has the interagency lead on aid transparency and manages agencies’ Foreign Assistance Dashboard and IATI submissions. Meeting the US IATI implementation schedule is now largely contingent on State adding its data to the mix. Hopefully the folks at Foggy Bottom will put their foot on the accelerator this coming year and jump the bureaucratic speed bumps that are slowing them down.

The Ugly – PEPFAR: While PEPFAR has posted its country operational plans and results for years, there is shockingly little information available at the project level. As one of the most important US aid programs, it’s alarming that this information is not made available in machine-readable format. And that researchers, like our colleague Victoria Fan, must spend hours and hours manually reviewing available documents in an effort to shed light on PEPFAR’s financial flows. With PEPFAR facing its reauthorization, it should take concerted steps now to open its books to US taxpayers, developing country officials, and its ultimate beneficiaries.

Note: The Index's indicators and scoring methodology were revised in 2013. The number of donor organizations surveyed was also reduced. Comparisons bewteen 2012-2013 scores and ranks should take these changes into consideration.

As the Obama Administration pauses to assess its progress so far, there is a lot to be proud of. Yet, there remains a lot of terrain to traverse and a broad chasm separating individual agencies efforts that must be closed. Even the current IATI implementation schedule is slipping, despite the impressive efforts of several agencies like the MCC.  Looking ahead, we’re hoping the Administration will breathe more life into its well-intentioned efforts. That could happen if the government issued a commitment to the full IATI standard.

For a more detailed review of US aid transparency efforts in 2013 read Publish What You Fund’s accompanying report “Transparency and U.S. Foreign Assistance: a Year in Review.”


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.