USAID: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

USAID says on its web site: “The effective functioning of our constitutional democracy depends upon the participation in public life of a citizenry that is well informed.” USAID also has signed onto an inspirational document signed by all aid agencies around the world promising full disclosure of information. Anything else would be hypocrisy when the aid donors are constantly preaching to poor country governments that they should be “transparent.” Which is why we were wondering: why have we still not gotten an answer to questions on USAID reporting on aid tying we first asked USAID five weeks ago? This was in response to our blog on USAID aid tying information on February 24th. We had been having trouble getting ANY response at all from the USAID press office ever since, despite sending no less than nine polite emails (and one slightly less polite email) and equally numerous voicemail messages their way. Our hopes flickered briefly when the USAID press office left us a voice mail on March 13, promising to get back to us right away. Since then, not a word, more emails from us, and … silence.

Bending over backwards, we thought we’d give them another shot, looking for data on USAID assistance broken down by country and by sector (which we easily got in five minutes with one phone call to the British aid agency DFID – see below).

USAID has a general inquiry line, which is supposed to connect you to a “team of knowledgeable information specialists [who] can point you to the sources that have the information that you need.” Thank goodness, a live person answered the phone. But from there, things went downhill. No one whom we were able to speak with in three hours of phone calls and research on the USAID website seemed to really understand our question, and only after many tries did we reach someone who could make a credible guess about which office to direct our questions to.

At one point we were referred to the Congressional Budget Justification, an 873-page document created to request funds from Congress. At another point, we were told that we would need to gather the data from each country desk separately. This would be difficult, since the data provided on each country webpage does not always seem to be uniform or comparable, and most often just refers you back to the mammoth CBJ. USAID’s random aid numbers are so confusing and so scattered that the USAID staff themselves apparently can’t make sense of them, judging by their inability to answer simple questions.

Is it just intrinsically impossible for aid agencies to be responsive to questions and data requests? A few weeks ago, we happened to be looking for data on how much the UK aid agency DFID spends on the type of aid known as budget support, across several African countries. After a few minutes of trying to manipulate some unwieldy OECD data sets, we clicked over to the DFID website. They also had a public inquiry line listed right on the ‘Contact Us’ page. When we dialed the UK number, a live person answered the phone. This person clearly understood the question, and transferred the call directly to another knowledgeable, live person who also understood exactly what we were looking for. She told us where the data was located on the DFID website, and then actually guided us to it in exactly five mouse clicks. We had clear, user-friendly data and a precise answer to our question in less than five minutes.

(We were tough on DFID on their budget support practices, but we praise them to the skies for opening themselves up to public scrutiny so we could discuss the issue at all.)

Why does this matter? Well USAID was right that “a citizenry that is well informed” is one of the only hopes to hold public agencies accountable, and thus improve the likelihood that USAID dollars actually reach some real poor people.

President Obama has inspired great hope by promising improved US government transparency, but maybe USAID ignores the President as much as they ignore the citizens.

Update: USAID has since emailed us back about our sectoral data request! Unfortunately the analyst at the USAID Knowledge Services Center who responded did not point us to any better data sources than those we had already found in our fruitless three-hour quest the day before. On the bright side, though, the email does vastly improve USAID’s track record on answering emails.