The Data Revolution That’s Reshaping American Foreign Assistance

May 11, 2016 By Sung Lee

The 2016 baseball season is in full swing, and fans of the game have seen a remarkable change in recent years. Teams now track and measure an incredible amount of data from every game, from walks to batting average and earned run average to strikeouts. But a new focus on data and transparency hasn’t just shaped how baseball is played — the “big data” revolution is also helping make U.S. foreign assistance more efficient, effective, and accountable.

Progress in Transparency

Since its founding in 2004, transparency has been at the core of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Thanks to the current administration’s strong commitment to aid transparency, taxpayers can now see information about what, where, and how the U.S. spends foreign assistance abroad through and USAID’s foreign aid explorer websites.

Although some have pointed out that data on the websites needs to be continually updated, it is still remarkable progress. Only a couple years ago, it was almost impossible for everyday Americans to find where aid dollars were going and how they were being spent. Moreover, Publish What You Fund’s 2016 Aid Transparency Index reported that all of the U.S. agencies have made a significant progress, having scored at least in the “fair” category as compared to 2011 Index, when five of six agencies were ranked in the “poor” or “very poor” categories.

Sustained Leadership is Critical

Since the 2009 Presidential Directive on Transparency and Open Government that required U.S. government agencies to collect and publish foreign aid data, our nation has helped guide a movement to elevate the importance of openness and accountability in the global development community as well.

The U.S. became a signatory to the International Aid Transparency Initiative in 2011 and helped launch the Open Government Partnership to promote transparency, empower citizens, and fight corruption. In just five years, this partnership has grown from 8 to 66 countries and has helped improve governance for almost 2 billion global citizens. Furthermore, American leadership enabled the NGO community to make their development programs more transparent through the NGO Aid Map, which tracks where and how U.S. NGOs allocate development dollars overseas.

Constrained Resources

Progress is ever more critical at a time of limited, if not declining resources. Since FY 2010, America’s International Affairs Budget has declined by 12 percent while the world today is experiencing an unprecedented number of disasters. To meet the challenges, we must sustain efforts to make our nation’s development and diplomacy initiatives more transparent, efficient, and effective. USAID administrator Gayle Smith spoke about the steps she will take to make USAID “fully transparent and accountable” in her recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Relations.

As every baseball fan will tell you, the season’s 162 games are a marathon, not a sprint. Tremendous progress has been made in advancing foreign aid reform towards open and transparent data. Institutionalizing culture of transparency across the government will take sustained efforts and time. Let’s make sure to help institutionalize U.S. commitments to foreign aid transparency in our work to build a better, safer world.

Photo: A Peace Corps volunteer with a family in Morocco. The Peace Corps and MCC work in collaboration to share knowledge, strength and resources to improve the lives of those living in poverty in U.S. partner countries. Peace Corps / CC.