As co-chairs of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), we are working to increase the effectiveness and impact of U.S. foreign assistance by strengthening accountability.  That means ensuring the best use of taxpayer dollars by following the funding from initial approval to the conclusion of a program or project, requiring independent monitoring and evaluation, and using the findings to improve performance. 

The vital first step in this process is transparency. Without an ability to see the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of a project, neither U.S. citizens nor the intended beneficiaries can hold their governments responsible for delivering on their promises.

As logical as this premise sounds, transparency isn’t easy. Even though the State Department, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies have committed to publishing detailed aid data on the State Department’s “Dashboard” and the International Aid Transparency Initiative Registry, not all the necessary data is included, and some of it is very difficult to use and understand. 

Why is this the case?  Too often, policymakers and aid practitioners do not see the real value in sharing data.  Providing information is time-consuming. It’s extra work. Internal agency financial systems were not designed to collect and display data in a usable internet format. Finally, it may not be directly apparent to the program officer that the data is of use to anyone else.  

Within our Accountability Working Group, comprised of representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks and foreign policy experts, we understand the value of this data. Transparency allows us to see what works and what doesn’t, and to make sure that aid reaches those who need it. Together our group has developed a new policy paper that explains why transparency serves our national interests and foreign policy objectives. When shared in a timely and accurate manner, the data not only enhances our own democratic process, but also gives local communities a sense of empowerment and a stake in program success.  Being clear and open about our goals and expectations is critical to achieving common goals for alleviating poverty, eliminating chronic hunger, providing security and growing economic opportunities. 

In making our case for the many benefits of transparent foreign assistance, we also understand that the process for getting there isn’t easy. So our paper sets out concrete recommendations for how U.S. government agencies and the Congress can expand access to usable, timely and quality data.  We will be following up over the coming months with key decision makers to advance this agenda.

Transparency really does matter.  It is through data and evidence that we hold ourselves mutually accountable for the successful outcomes of U.S. foreign assistance, paving the way toward a more stable, prosperous and secure world. 

Lori Groves Rowley is the Director of Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center. Diana Ohlbaum is a Senior Associate at CSIS and an independent consultant. The authors serve as co-chairs of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.