Despite the Rhetoric, US Foreign Assistance Still Not Transparent

September 09, 2016

On January 12, 2010, Haiti experienced a 7.0M earthquake, killing over 200,000 people and making several million homeless. In the years that followed, the US committed over $3 billion in taxpayer funds to help Haitians cope with this enormous disaster. Between 2012 and 2014, my coauthor Julie Walz and I spent countless hours trying to figure out where all the money had gone.

USAID’S tradition of not reporting data from their subcontractors meant that the trail grew cold quickly. My final attempt (in 2014) at tracking the money showed that almost half of the transactions data had missing values for the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS), which serves as a unique identifier for vendors and transactions. In addition to the missing DUNS data, 35 percent of vendor names (corresponding to $16 million in disbursements) and 34 percent of award numbers ($18.4 million) were not reported. Four years after the quake, USAID either did not know who its vendors were or had not bothered to record the data. USAID has recently added more vendor information to its database.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows the same dismal pattern on a much wider scale with regard to data quality. Since 2013, the Department of State has collected and published quarterly data on from the 10 agencies that provide the majority of US foreign assistance. Comparing data for fiscal year 2014 from USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer and State’s, the GAO finds that State did not report over $10 billion in disbursements and $6 billion in obligations. Even award titles are not listed correctly for many of the transactions that GAO reviewed. 

The GAO also finds that State was not fully transparent about the limitations of its data. Neither had it updated with verified annual data to ensure quality. These problems are not new; my colleague Sarah Rose talked about them in a CGD blog post over two years ago. Figure 1 shows the discrepancies for 2014.

Figure 1. Comparison of Foreign Assistance Funding Data Reported by 10 US Agencies—published on and Foreign Aid Explorer, FY 2014


In addition to the data limitations identified by GAO, another big gap in US foreign assistance data transparency that isn’t even trying to address is the reporting on sub-contractor awards. This is supposed to be done in the FFATA Sub-Award Reporting System (FSRS), which should eventually feed into 

The GAO recommends that State should provide guidance to the relevant agencies on identifying data limitations and clearly disclose those limitations on the website; and in consultation with the OMB director and the USAID administrator, undertake a review of data quality and develop guidance on improving the quality of aid data. These are sound recommendations in an ongoing effort to improve transparency in US foreign assistance, which is not an end in itself. Rather it is a means to understanding what works and how to best assist beneficiaries.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.