Aid Transparency: Will Obama and Romney Walk the Walk?

Displaced children from the Orma tribe eat rice from a shared plate at a Red Cross IDP camp in the Tana river Delta on Septem
Displaced children from the Orma tribe eat rice from a shared plate at a Red Cross IDP camp in the Tana river Delta on September 12, 2012. The red cross claim 8 children were slaughtered by members of the Pokomo tribe during an attack by 300 tribesmen on Kilelengwani village which left 38 people dead,167 houses burnt to the ground, and scores of slaughtered cattle. The Kenyan government has authorised a deployment of 1,300 General Service Unit (GSU) officers, the Kenyan specialist riot police squad, in the area and a dusk to dawn curfew, after 112 people were killed in clashes between the Pokomo and Orma tribes since late August 2012. AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/GettyImages)

In an era when people empowered by technology demand transparency and accountability from public institutions, foreign assistance must keep pace with trends toward greater openness and participation. After all, millions of dollars are at stake, and decisions concerning the allocation of those resources impact communities across the globe. Because assistance is important to our values, national security, and economic and human advancement, it is important that we get it right and make it as effective as possible.

This week was one of the rare moments when aid effectiveness was given the attention it deserves, with President Obama recommitting to an aid agenda that pulls people out of poverty and breaks dependency in his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, as well as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney presenting his policies for making assistance more effective at the Clinton Global Initiative. And new tools like the Publish What You Fund 2012 Aid Transparency Index -- a report card assessing the extent to which key aid donors make public data on their assistance programs -- help ensure that the U.S. and other aid donors follow through on their promises to make assistance more transparent.

Making data and information on assistance programs available has multiple benefits -- it provides citizens with the information that allows them to hold government and other relevant institutions accountable (in both aid receiving and aid providing countries); facilitates collaboration among donors; allows a recipient government to factor aid flows into budgets and program planning. Transparent and consultative policy making contributes to better-informed citizens, more informed and supported policies, and more accountable government. Bringing government and citizens into open forums to discuss and commit to transparent, open government procedures allows the committed to exchange experiences and practices and puts pressure on the reluctant to shape up.

How does the United States measure up to other nations in advancing the transparency agenda? Quite well. Examples of recent U.S. efforts include:

  • In 2011 President Obama and Brazilian President Roussef launched the Open Government Partnership, a government-to-government social network to push advocacy and share tips on opening the processes of government.
  • In 2010 the US government launched the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, an unprecedented transparency effort among US government agencies that provides aid data in an easy to access format. While it currently provides a limited range of assistance data from only USAID, MCC, and the Department of State, the intention is that it will eventually house data on assistance programs for all US government agencies and other relevant information such as strategies and evaluations.
  • At the 2011 High Level Meeting at Busan Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck a high chord in committing the United States to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), thereby reaching a critical level of 75 percent of aid flows for which data is to become available publicly. Furthermore, in preparing for the 2011 Busan High Level meeting, the US government, led by USAID, engaged in extensive consultations to bring civil society organizations into policy deliberations.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passage of the Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act of 2012 on September 19 signaled robust bipartisan support for aid effectiveness in the Congress. Under the leadership of Congressmen Poe and Berman in the House and Senators Lugar and Rubio in the Senate, lawmakers are seizing this rare moment of bipartisanship to make our foreign assistance more effective and to restore U.S. development leadership.
  • On September 25 the Office of Management and Budget issued Bulletin No. 12-01 directing 22 U.S. government agencies to report assistance data publically in a timely, comparable, and comprehensive manner in XML format that captures a much greater detail of data than has previously been employed.

These commendable developments are the result of a series of hard decisions that will ensure that the U.S. talks the talk and walks the walk of greater aid transparency and effectiveness.

At the United Nations, President Obama told world leaders: "Understand that America will never retreat from the world." Thanks to these efforts to demystify the allocation of our aid resources, every American citizen, and every global citizen, will be able to find out exactly what our nation's foreign assistance is actually doing and the impact it is making abroad. Used properly, this 1 percent of our budget can be an incredibly strong tool that advances our interests and makes the world a better and safer place. Transparency cannot do all of that alone, but just try achieving our nation's economic, diplomatic, or security goals without it.