U.S. Signs IATI, but the Proof Is in the Publishing

December 07, 2011
With the development community back from Busan, it’s time to break down what went right and wrong at last week’s meetings. The consensus seems to be that the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4) in Busan was a mixed bag – some promises, few commitments, little progress (see here for a good breakdown of the meetings from Nancy Birdsall). Donors were able to dodge most measureable, time-bound commitments and left the public with few benchmarks against which to hold them accountable. Disappointments aside, some achievements did emerge from the grandstanding, particularly with regards to transparency where the U.S. took a major step towards making its aid investments more transparent, measureable, and accessible. During her keynote address at the opening session, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. will join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).  IATI is a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative aimed at committing donors to publish up-to-date foreign assistance data in a standard format that is accessible and comparable, in line with the Accra Agenda for Action commitments on transparency. The announcement was a huge boon to the international development community which has long sought to shed more light on government aid expenditures globally. As the largest bilateral donor with annual aid commitments of $30 billion, the United States’ entry means that IATI’s 25 signatories now account for around 80% of global official development assistance. Furthermore, U.S. participation adds to the credibility of the initiative and puts more pressure on those who have yet to join. For U.S. foreign assistance, participation in IATI represents another big step in what has become a growing list of promising commitments to greater transparency since the rollout of the PPD and QDDR, which touted openness as a key principle of high impact development. The sign-on comes nearly a year after the launch of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, an online catalogue of where and how much the U.S. government is spending on assistance, and is expected to help both American citizens and recipient partners better track aid disbursements to ensure funds are being allocated effectively. While the U.S. is relatively close to meeting this new commitment to IATI, it still has a ways to go before turning its rhetoric on transparency into reality. Publish What You Fund rates the majority of U.S. agencies as having “poor” scores in their Index, while the 2011 Quality of Official Development Assessment ranks the U.S. 12th out of 31 donors in the category of transparency and learning. As an IATI signatory, the U.S. is required to publish data to the IATI registry in a standardized format. But most U.S. agencies have yet to even provide data to the dashboard, let alone an international agency, for closer scrutiny. Don’t get me wrong, Hillary Clinton and her delegation should be loudly applauded for mustering the political capital necessary to get the U.S. on board with IATI. But ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, or should I say publishing, and there has been very little of that to date. To echo a recommendation from Noam Unger and Homi Kharas at the Brookings Institution, “the United States should publish a specific schedule for adding data from more agencies and categories to the dashboard in the way it was originally envisioned.”  A schedule would provide a more tangible commitment to the dashboard and a benchmark for U.S. taxpayers and the international community to hold the government accountable as a new member of IATI. Updating the dashboard will help validate Clinton’s achievement but until the numbers are published the U.S. can’t fulfill its obligations to IATI. HLF4 may not have been a raging success, but it did produce at least one major commitment from the U.S. Let’s turn the rhetoric into reality and publish that promise.


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