By Melissa Kaplan
In today’s polarized political environment, it’s not often that a bill receives a unanimous show of support from the U.S. House of Representatives. However, that’s what happened last December, when the House approved, by a vote of 390-0, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act.
This show of unanimity may be unusual, but it is not surprising. The bill, which was reintroduced by Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., represents a smart, common-sense bipartisan effort to improve our nation’s valuable investment in foreign assistance. If signed into law, it would go a long way in making lifesaving U.S. aid and poverty-reducing programs more effective by enacting stronger transparency and accountability measures.
How exactly would FATA do this? First of all, the bill requires the president to establish guidelines on goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans to be applied to U.S. foreign assistance activities. This means that necessary scrutiny would be paid to how foreign assistance programs are working, where they are succeeding and where we can do better.
Additionally, FATA would put into law the need to make publicly available “comprehensive, timely, comparable, and accessible information on United States foreign assistance.” The bill requires the head of every U.S. department or agency that handles foreign aid to provide quarterly updates on its foreign assistance programs to the secretary of State, who would then update this information on the State Department’s Foreign Assistance Dashboard website. This would keep the site as current and useful as possible to those seeking information on where and how U.S. foreign assistance dollars are being spent.
The dashboard currently provides data on foreign aid distribution by country, region and function. However, only five of the more than 20 federal agencies managing foreign aid have begun sharing their data regularly on this website, and the data that has been provided has not been detailed enough. FATA addresses this problem by breaking down details of what type of information should be shared, including country assistance strategies, annual budget documents, expenditures, and reports and evaluations. It’s a necessary step toward greater aid transparency.
The world we live in today is more tightly interconnected than it has ever been. It’s not a question of whether foreign assistance is necessary, but rather how we can best utilize this important tool to reduce extreme poverty as a prominent signal of America’s moral leadership. President Barack Obama recently completed a high-profile trip to Africa — a continent that has suffered greatly from war, poverty and disease but also a place where U.S. foreign assistance has had a real and positive impact through programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (an HIV and AIDs initiative that has provided anti-retroviral treatment, care and other support to millions around the world). At less than 1 percent of the federal budget, foreign assistance represents a tiny sliver of U.S. spending, but the dollars invested in the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development can do an enormous amount of good even on a relative shoestring.
InterAction and other leading U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, many of which carry out foreign assistance work in the field and know firsthand the positive impact FATA can have if it is enacted, have backed the legislation. It is critical that the Obama administration support this legislation and its goals of greater accountability and transparency, too. I hope that the State Department, USAID and other agencies that routinely handle foreign aid see the value in this bill and support efforts to ensure its passage.
Many problems facing Congress today seem intractable, and our legislative branch is often stymied by partisan rancor that prevents the implementation of much-needed solutions to pressing problems. The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act represents a chance to break through this logjam and enact common-sense legislation that will enable our foreign assistance programs to work better. It’s no wonder that this legislation has drawn such strong bipartisan support among those who believe in the good foreign assistance can do, and want to see that it’s carried out as effectively as possible. Despite its unanimous approval by the House of Representatives, time ran out last Congress before the Senate had a chance to vote on FATA. Now that it has been reintroduced, with additional, stronger language on monitoring and evaluation, I am confident that it can and will pass in both chambers this year.
Many thanks are owed to Reps. Poe and Connolly and Sens. Rubio and Cardin for their tireless work to reintroduce the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. I look forward to its swift movement through the House and Senate and hope to see Obama sign it into law as soon as possible. The wait has been long enough. It’s time for action.
Melissa Kaplan is the advocacy manager for aid reform and effectiveness at InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 U.S.-based international NGOs.