One of the main take-aways from CGD’s June 2011 study group report on Pakistan is that, when it comes to development assistance, the U.S. government has suffered from a lack of transparency about what it is doing, how much it is spending, and what it is achieving.
In that report, we emphasized the view of our Pakistan study group members that in order for increased civilian assistance (authorized under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill) to have significant impact, USAID and other government agencies would need to better communicate what they’re doing in Pakistan. With billions of dollars being spent on development, US taxpayers might want to know too.
As a first step toward solving this problem, the report recommended that USAID create a new website to “offer up-to-date information on spending plans and, critically, on aid disbursements. It should list all the projects funded by American assistance, ideally in a way that is sortable by geographic area or implementing partner.”
Last August, I blogged about this issue, saying that a revamped website could play an important role in informing the public debate that Pakistanis are having about the role US assistance should play in their country. During the summer and fall of 2011, there were rumblings from USAID that a new website was in the works. Finally in September, Administrator Rajiv Shah claimed in a speech at the Asia Society that a new USAID-Pakistan website would be up and running by the end of 2011.
As of last week, the long wait is over. USAID-Pakistan’s new website is up, and it’s a big improvement over the status quo. Here are some of my initial impressions.
1. The website gets high marks for being user-friendly. The design is cleaner and easier to use than the old, clunky website. The front page contains a collection of videos made for, or by, USAID. Some of them are not particularly noteworthy, but others are informative, interesting, and better still, voiced over in Urdu.
2. Most importantly, the site highlights what’s important. It lays out USAID’s five priority sectors in a column on the left-hand side of the page, and provides a link explaining USAID’s new, more streamlined sectoral approach. Each sector page includes a brief explanation of USAID’s focus on the issue, a list of objectives, links to projects in that sector, and a “working paper” that describes USAID’s sector strategy. Some of these are excellent. The energy working paper, for example, provides a clear sense of exactly why assistance in this sector is important to both US and Pakistani interests, what USAID wants to achieve, and how it plans to meet these goals.
3. The new website also provides information on every project that USAID is currently undertaking in Pakistan. Each project page provides a description of the project, total budgeted funding, time period, and a list of “results to date.” This is far more than was made available on the previous USAID-Pakistan site.
Yet, the website does fall short of the study group’s recommendation in a few important ways. Here’s what could still use improvement:
4. There is still too little information available on how much money is actually being spent in Pakistan. The budget for each project is provided as a single number, described as the “Congressionally-appropriated funds provided for the project to date.” This is better than nothing, but could be improved upon by making a distinction between the budgeted amount (how much USAID plans to spend), and the amount actually disbursed by USAID to date. This would be particularly useful in cases where the project is already finished, or currently underway. Similarly, the budget and obligations page would benefit from disbursement details, rather than simply a list of budgeted amounts.
5. Objective measures of success are not very clear. At the sectoral level, the working papers do a good job of specifying what USAID wants to achieve in partnership with the government of Pakistan. However, at the level of individual projects, it’s often not clear what constitutes success, or how success will be measured.
6. There’s no Urdu version of the site. In fact, there’s almost nothing available on the site for Pakistanis who don’t speak English, other than the aforementioned videos.
These criticisms aside, USAID deserves praise for publicly providing greater clarity on their overall objectives and strategy, as well as project-level descriptions, budgets and results. The new website constitutes an important first step towards a more transparent approach to USAID’s activities in Pakistan. With a few changes, the website could become an even more useful tool for researchers like ourselves, not to mention American taxpayers and the Pakistani people.