First published on From Poverty to Power (Oxfam) September 6, 2023
This week, USAID Administrator Samantha Power is scheduled to give a keynote at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Estonia. In November 2021, she wowed the international development community with a pair of very ambitious localization targets –25% of direct funding for ‘local organizations’ by 2025, and 50% of programming to be ‘locally-led’ by 2030. In March 2023, USAID announced a new Acquisition and Assistance Strategy to address some of the many institutional constraints to meeting these targets.
No doubt FP2P readers are already familiar with the lags in the localization process. USAID has been frank about this, notably with their FY 2022 Localization Progress Report, which shared a good news/bad news story: direct funding for national organizations reached nearly $1.6 billion, but that only added up to 10.2% of obligations. The foreign aid advocacy group Publish What You Fund (PWYF) uses a stricter indicator for what counts as ‘local,’ suggesting even less progress.
The USAID report also spotlights country-by-country progress, which could motivate a ‘race-to-the-top’ insofar as most decisions about localized funding are currently made at the country office level. It sketched out their new indicators for tracking good practices toward the much harder-to-measure goal of ‘locally-led development.’
But so far, patterns of progress towards direct funding for national organizations ae highly lopsided, concentrated overwhelmingly in Africa and in the health sector. In Latin America, the share of direct local funding went down rather than up.
We think an open government lens can shed light on the challenge of localizing aid. Open government is notably absent from the localization agenda – at least based on what is public so far. For locally-led development to be meaningful, national stakeholders need more user-centered information about where aid funding goes and how project decisions are made. Otherwise, there is a risk that official consultations will become box ticking exercises, lacking the relevant information to make them useable by civil society and others.
USAID’s open government progress: Two steps forward, a half step back
In terms of big picture USAID information disclosure trends, according to assessments of 50 aid agencies by PWYF’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI), USAID is in the middle of the pack. The agency has improved overall from ‘fair’ to ‘good’ since 2013 – yet USAID’s transparency ratings fell from 2020 to 2022 slipping in both absolute and relative terms (down from 76. 7 to 62.5 points out of a possible 100 and falling from 15th to 25th).
From the point of view of locally-led development, examining the different components of the index is helpful. USAID receives high scores for “Joining-up development data,” a highly technical indicator mainly of interest to global data analysts. In contrast, the PWYF indicators show that USAID consistently falls short in publishing information of greatest interest to in-country policy analysts and partners, such as project budgets and key performance-related documents (baseline, mid-project, and final assessment reports). USAID’s lack of subnational data drove the 2022 drop in ATI ratings. Translation of project information is not tracked – though some pages are in national languages.
From a user-centered, locally-led development point of view, relevant public information about USAID projects is a mess, split between at least five government sites: USAID’s country sites provide descriptive project information, ForeignAssistance.gov provides consistent annual budget data, and USASpending.gov provides some data on implementors’ subcontracts (known as subawards). More detailed project baseline information and evaluations are on USAID’s Development Experience Clearinghouse. USAID’s new Evaluations Dashboard offers a more user-friendly resource for accessing project reports, though gaps in coverage remain.
For informed participation, more user-centered project info is needed.
Inspired by Publish What You Fund’s tracking of localization patterns across ten countries, and in consultation with counterparts in Colombia, the Accountability Research Center is doing a deeper dive into localization at the country level. Colombia is a relevant bellwether because it is the largest recipient of US aid in Latin America and the US has made a significant and sustained contribution to funding the peace process – including a commitment to contribute to the innovative Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Accord, with recent support from US and Colombian advocacy groups. Yet in spite of Colombia’s robust civil society, the share of direct USAID funding going to Colombian organizations peaked at 10.9% back in 2017 and has dropped steadily since then to 3.8% in 2022.
For Colombians interested in engaging with USAID, a good first place to turn would be the project pages on the USAID country website. Many are bilingual and provide important specifics, yet less than half of the 45 project pages provide the basic information of the names of the implementing partners and the project budgets.
ForeignAssistance.gov provides useful data about country-level sectoral trends with US aid – though independent analysts may want to unpack the official categories. For Colombia, sectoral analysis shows relatively small shares of the USAID portfolio are currently going to global and national priorities such as anti-corruption and environmental protection.
Implementing partner activities and funding patterns remain often opaque. Yet remarkably, some details about which national organizations are funded by implementing partners are accessible elsewhere – on the (rather unwieldy) USASpending.gov – though only for less than a third of Colombia projects. Preliminary review suggests that quality control for reporting USAID project subaward data is patchy – and underscores large US contractors’ very uneven steps towards sharing funds with national partners.
Currently, for stakeholders to see both the forest and the trees requires technical proficiency and extensive knowledge about how to connect the dots across data sources. More user-centered access to information will be key to informing locally-led development and getting USAID from good intentions to real results on the ground.