Measuring and Improving the Impact of US Foreign Aid—A Look at Two Key Statutes
Over the years, US lawmakers of many stripes have embraced the value proposition of foreign assistance. While their precise motivations have varied, ensuring US international aid is transparent, accountable, and effective has been vital to this long-running bipartisan support.
Where and how US foreign assistance is spent—and to what extent programming is on track and working—is critical information for decision-makers in government and a range of other stakeholders. Foreign aid has been shown to deliver impact, but its success can hinge on how well programs are designed and implemented. The odds of success can improve where data and evidence guide programming decisions. Data can also be used to steer broader aid agency strategies, shape country partnerships, and inform decisions about resource allocation to align with policy goals. However, some work remains as reports have shown gaps in what is known about the effectiveness of current aid programs.
Congress has demonstrated its interest in transparency, accountability, and effectiveness through letters, hearings, statements, spending directives, and even more pointedly through legislation. Two particular statutes stand out for their focus on the publication of accessible, timely data and the generation and use of evidence to help inform critical policy decisions—the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA) and the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (The Evidence Act).
As longtime proponents of aid effectiveness, CGD and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) are teaming up to host an event focused on these statutes and their influence on US development agencies. We’re bringing together key officials to discuss where there has been important progress, what lessons have been learned, and what more can be done to measure and improve the impact of US development assistance. Read a quick refresher on these laws below and register to join the discussion on November 15.
How it started
Iterations of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, affectionately known as FATAA, kicked around Capitol Hill for several years before being signed into law in July 2016. From its inception, the measure sought to strengthen US foreign assistance transparency by setting expectations for the timeliness, quality, completeness, and accessibility of data. FATAA also required agencies administering international aid to identify measurable goals and performance metrics, develop monitoring and evaluation (M&E) plans for US-supported programming, and make agency-supported evaluations publicly available. The law codified a number of practices US government agencies had already begun to implement—ensuring they would last well beyond any single administration and spurring further momentum. FATAA also encouraged the merger of two existing platforms into one central repository for regular reporting of US foreign aid data from the full range of agencies that manage shares of the total US foreign assistance portfolio.
How it’s going
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) detailed agency progress on FATAA implementation in a 2019 report, giving only three of 22 agencies top marks on compliance with reporting requirements pertaining to awards, transaction-level data (and associated descriptions), strategies, budget, and evaluations. In July 2019, the Government Accountability Office published a report confirming that agencies managing the bulk of US international aid—except for the Defense Department—had incorporated required M&E guidelines and taken steps toward implementation. Foreignassistance.gov was formally launched as a consolidated aid dashboard in late 2021—though the publication of some data to the platform remains lagged.
The Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, signed into law in October 2018, extended FATAA’s reach to the new US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
The Evidence Act
How it started
In January 2019, the Evidence Act was signed into law, mandating new requirements to help federal agencies across the US government improve the accessibility, generation, and use of data, evaluation, and other evidence. This measure, too, had an origin story dating back years. In March 2016, Congress passed legislation creating a bipartisan commission to develop recommendations to increase the availability and use of government data to inform programming and policy. Commission recommendations formed the basis for the Evidence Act, mandating 24 agencies publish an evaluation policy, designate personnel to fill key responsibilities related to data and evaluation, and produce learning agendas, capacity assessments related to evidence-building activities, and evaluation plans. A yet-to-be-fully phased-in title of the statute centers on data publication—featuring an underlying call to make data open by default.
How it’s going
An official website, evaluation.gov, makes tracking agency compliance with prescribed activities and guidance relatively easy. USAID and the State Department are officially subject to the requirements of the Evidence Act, though OMB guidance has urged other federal agencies to adhere to many elements of the law.
Both statutes reinforce the importance of collecting and publishing data and evidence on international assistance. Robust use of this information—including what we learn about the effectiveness of US programming and approaches—remains critical to increasing the impact of US foreign aid investments. We look forward to our upcoming discussion about progress to date and what work lies ahead, and we hope you can join the conversation.
This blog was originally published on the Centre for Global Development (CGD) website. It is being reproduced on 3ie’s website with permission.