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America’s Foreign Aid Must Be Modernized

In this photo taken on Friday April 14, 2017, U.S Senators Bob Corker, third right, and Chris Coons, second right, listen to a South Sudanese refugee during a group discussion at the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda. In a political climate dominated by President Donald Trump's slogan of "America First," two U.S. senators are proposing making American food aid more efficient after meeting with victims of South Sudan's famine and civil war. After visiting the world's largest refugee settlement in northern Uganda, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told The Associated Press that the U.S. "can deliver more food aid at less cost" through foreign food aid reform. (AP/Photo/Justin Lynch)

Each year, Congress is responsible for establishing a budget for the United States Government. Congress makes difficult choices about funding levels for international affairs, among other programs. But what exactly happens after the budget is established? A new report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General paints a bleak picture of how the State Department is tracking and managing critical foreign aid dollars.

On June 30, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General -- an independent arm of the agency that provides oversight of its programs -- published a compliance follow-up review with the headline “Department of State is Still Unable to Accurately Track and Report on Foreign Assistance Funds.” Ouch.

The report outlines how, in 2014, the State Department created a working group to help address the challenge of tracking and reporting foreign assistance spending. Disappointed with the outputs of the group, the 2015 report from the Inspector General strengthened and reissued the recommendation for executive leadership to oversee the tracking of foreign assistance spending. Two years later, the Inspector General chided the government saying it “cannot obtain timely and accurate data necessary to provide central oversight of foreign assistance activities and meet statutory and regulatory reporting requirements."

These findings are deeply concerning as the White House seeks dramatic cuts to America’s foreign aid budget. Making foreign assistance more efficient, trackable, and transparent must be a core area of focus as advocates and members of congress work together to protect foreign aid.

Earlier this year, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) published a list of “Guiding Principles for Effective U.S. Assistance”. Over 100 organizations, including Global Citizen, signed on to guiding principles which sync closely with the recommendations provided by the Inspector General. In particular, MFAN explained that “foreign assistance should be transparent and accountable to American taxpayers and local stakeholders”. MFAN offered several suggestions for implementing this recommendation including the publication of high-quality and comprehensive aid data on ForeignAssistance.gov as well as the facilitation of data collection so that local partners can hold their governments and donors accountable.

As technology rapidly advances, America’s aid programs should incorporate best practices in reporting and evaluation. The best way to fight back against allegations that aid is fraught with “waste, fraud, and abuse” is to improve transparency and accountability. Modernization should be standard operating procedure.

However, the need to modernize aid does not call for substantial cuts to foreign aid. Over the past few years, Congress has passed important legislation like the Water for the World Act, Electrify Africa Act, Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, and Global Food Security Act which have facilitated incredible improvements in the transparency and accountability of America’s foreign assistance programs. To accept the White House’s proposal and cut the international affairs budget by 32% would negate the progress that has been made in modernizing aid thus far.

The State Department, congress, and civil society must maintain a reform mindset. Improved transparency and accountability will likely demonstrate the importance of foreign assistance, increasing interest in future investment in aid.