USAID and NGO transparency: When in doubt, hide the data

by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator In my last blog post on this website, I claimed that some NGOs had instructed USAID to hide part or all of their project budgets in a FOIA response, and praised others for their openness. Aid Watch subsequently contacted all NGOs mentioned in the piece for comments.

In its response, World Vision denied ever having asked USAID to withhold budgetary information:

World Vision has checked thoroughly with all of its relevant offices and found no record of having received notification of this FOIA request by USAID or any evidence that WV asked USAID to redact information in the documents requested of USAID by Bruckner. After contacting USAID officials, we learned that the redaction was made independently by the USAID FOIA office, not at the request of WV.

Referring to a letter from the donor agency, World Vision correctly pointed out that in the letter, “USAID did not state or imply that World Vision asked that this information be withheld.”

Why had I pointed the finger at World Vision, rather than at USAID? Half a year after filing my FOIA, I had received an email from USAID stating that:

From the nature of your request, we anticipate the need to send a “submitter notification” to the companies awarded the contracts.  We notify them that we received a FOIA request for their proposals. We will afford them an opportunity to provide their arguments concerning the release or withholding of the proposal.  We will contact you when we send out the notifications.

USAID never did contact me again on this matter. When it finally provided the budgets a further eight months down the line, the type and amount of information withheld varied dramatically from one budget to the next, suggesting that the response was not the result of a process centrally managed by USAID in isolation.

Asked to clarify these apparent inconsistencies, USAID confirmed in an email that:

Yes, we did receive differing responses from the submitters. As these were grants, we had to obtain the submitters’ recommendations. Section 1 of Executive Order 12600 requires that we give submitters of confidential commercial information the opportunity to address how the disclosure of their information could reasonably be expected to cause substantial competitive harm.

This is astounding. USAID claims that it contacted its grantees, and now one of the NGOs insists that it was never contacted by its donor. Did USAID fail to contact some or all of its contractors, possibly breaching the law in the process? Did USAID go ahead and black out World Vision’s budgets on its own initiative?

Of the eight NGOs contacted by Aid Watch, only World Vision and CNFA have responded so far. CNFA’s response confirms that it regards its detailed project budgets as confidential proprietary information whose release might cause it competitive harm. However, CNFA declined to comment on a follow-up question which asked specifically whether it had been contacted by USAID, leaving open the possibility that USAID may have acted in line with its grantee’s interests without consulting CNFA in the process.

Did UMCOR, Mercy Corps and AIHA really agree to release their full project budgets in the Republic of Georgia, as I had assumed, or did USAID just throw open their books without consulting them? Did Save the Children and CARE truly instruct USAID to withhold select pieces of budgetary information? Did I mistakenly malign Counterpart International for opacity when the real culprit was USAID? Who received submitter notifications, and who did not?

Yesterday, Aid Watch asked USAID to confirm that they had indeed contacted each NGO. They replied the same day with this statement:

As a matter of standard operating procedure, USAID notified in writing all the organizations whose budgets were sought under the FOIA request. When we did not receive a response from some of the organizations, the FOIA office followed the regular process regarding redactions. USAID redacts trade, commercial, financial, and personally identifying information in order to protect USAID's and external organizations' business and personal data.

For more information, please see

So the default position is non-disclosure: USAID is legally bound to contact each NGO, but if USAID’s message gets lost, or if the NGO decides not to respond for any reason, then USAID redacts their data for them. Incentives are thus set up for aid agencies NOT to respond, and for USAID NOT to disclose.

I have begun to doubt that we will hear back from any of the other NGOs that Aid Watch has emailed. What incentives are there for NGOs to take part in an open dialogue, when their own funder sets such low standards for transparency and accountability?


Related posts:

The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test Till Bruckner Responds to Critics on Meaningful Transparency NGO Response: CNFA Reaffirms Commitment to Transparency World Vision responds on transparency

Read More & Discuss

World Vision responds on transparency

Editor's note: we are posting the following note received in its entirety from World Vision. World Vision Statement

In response to the Aid Watch post: The Accidental NGO and USAID Transparency Test

World Vision has investigated allegations posted on August 18, 2010 by Till Bruckner, a guest blogger.  The blog post charges WV and other NGOs with lack of transparency in responding to Bruckner’s request to the U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for program budgets for the Republic of Georgia.  Mr. Bruckner alleged that World Vision “apparently requested that USAID black out all information in their budget except for the grand total.”

World Vision has checked thoroughly with all of its relevant offices and found no record of having received notification of this FOIA request by USAID or any evidence that WV asked USAID to redact information in the documents requested of USAID by Bruckner.  After contacting USAID officials, we learned that the redaction was made independently by the USAID FOIA office, not at the request of WV.

The reasons for the redactions done by USAID were detailed to Bruckner in a letter from USAID dated July 14, 2010.  World Vision has obtained a copy of this letter and has verified that USAID did not state or imply that World Vision asked that this information be withheld.

We regret that Mr. Bruckner did not get all the information he was seeking.  It is also regrettable that he chose to suggest in his blog that WV had withheld that information when he had no evidence to support that accusation.

As a member of InterAction (one of the largest associations of nongovernmental organizations), World Vision is “committed to full, honest and accurate disclosure of relevant information concerning its goals, programs, finances and governance.”

Read More & Discuss

NGO Response: CNFA Reaffirms Commitment to Transparency

Editor's note: We emailed every organization mentioned in Till Bruckner's recent blog post, The accidental NGO and USAID Transparency Test to ask for their comment. CNFA sent us a response (also posted on their website) this afternoon, which we are reproducing here in full: Transparency and accountability are core values of CNFA. Our programs are designed to be cost-effective – producing maximum output for the least cost. CNFA is fully accountable to our clients, compliant with our donors' policies and procedures, and responsible to our beneficiaries. Our program management practices are broadly inclusive and transparent, involving all relevant stakeholders, donors, partners and policymakers. This is all a matter of "practicing what we preach." CNFA's most important goal, implemented through our programs, is to encourage local partner institutions to adopt transparent business practices, for the purpose of promoting private investment and commercial finance.

Recently it has been suggested that CNFA's choice not to release financial proposal data falls short of this commitment to transparency. In reality, the competitive process used by USAID and most other donors to award contracts is designed to foster innovation, lower costs, improve efficiency, and generate better long-term results. CNFA firmly believes that our unique approach to economic development has been demonstrated to improve rural incomes by promoting entrepreneurship as well as empowering the private sector to lead to economic growth and expanding commercial agriculture and agribusiness. So, given the highly competitive environment for donor-funded grants and contracts, CNFA is naturally reluctant to provide its proprietary information, including its cost approach, publicly to everyone, including its competitors. This does not mean that CNFA hides this information from its donors or does not comply with all reporting requirements imposed by them.

The program in question, the Georgia Agricultural Risk Reduction Program (GARRP), was part of the US Government's $1 billion pledge to aid Georgia's recovery following the 2008 war with Russia. Of the $19.5 million total program cost, $16.5 million, or 85%, went directly into the hands of Georgian farmers and businesses for the purchase of agricultural inputs and services. In turn, GARRP helped nearly 40,000 conflict-affected families stay on their farms and produce crops worth over $70 million at harvest, speeding the recovery of their livelihoods and their return to economic independence.

CNFA has always been and remains committed to delivering the best value to the U.S. taxpayer, to all its donors and to the beneficiaries of the programs we implement around the world. We believe that our results, our success in competitive donor awards and our publicly available financial records speak for themselves.

Read More & Discuss

Till Bruckner Responds to Critics on Meaningful Transparency

The following post was written by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator. In response to my recent post here, Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust argues that asking NGOs to share their budgets is misguided. He correctly points out that we should be concerned more with project outcomes than with financial details. However, while aid beneficiaries can and do judge NGO projects by their impact on the ground, Western taxpayers and private donors are unable to do so from afar. Transparency has many dimensions, including financial transparency. As a taxpayer, I have the right to ask what my money is being spent on as well as the right to ask what those expenditures actually achieved. Plus, if I cannot even find out what the total cost of a project was, how can I judge whether it was worth my money?

Scott Gilmore also states that access to budgets will not help to curb corruption, and recommends a focus on audits instead. While it is true that I cannot look at a budget and see whether the money was misappropriated in a legal sense, it does enable me to see what the money was allocated for in the first place. My original aim in requesting these budgets was not to muckrake, but to analyze what percentage of NGO project funds in Georgia flows back into donor countries in some form or another. I need to be able to distinguish between expenditures for local versus international salaries in order to find this out.

The aid industry has created a system that conveniently defines corruption so that expats can live a good life within the rules, whereas locals on far smaller salaries and with larger family commitments frequently get branded as corrupt for breaking these rules. In my experience, Afghan villagers do not share this narrow legalistic definition of corruption. When a project fails to deliver benefits to the poor, and the expat project manager at the same time lives a life of (locally) unimaginable luxury on designated poverty alleviation funds, villagers logically conclude that the project is failing due to corruption: instead of helping them as originally promised, the NGO is only helping itself. NGOs' arrogant attitude - "we're accountable by our own standards so we don't need to tell you where the money goes" - does little to change this perception.

Finally, Scott Gilmore raises the question of competition within the aid industry. I suspect many private donors would be dismayed to learn that some charities seem to orient their practices around the competition for government contracts. In any case, competition for a project ends when a funding decision has been made and taxpayers' money gets disbursed. Putting all successful proposals into the public realm as a matter of course will not only improve inter-agency learning, but will also discourage backroom dealing on contracts. This will create a more level playing field for all aid implementers, whether they are commercial contractors or NGOs. If Oxfam, UMCOR, Mercy Corps and AIHA can share their budgets, it is hard to see why other aid agencies cannot do the same.


Original post and responses: Till Bruckner: The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test Scott Gilmore: Transparent, Yes. But Transparent What? Transparency Extremist: Transparency in the Aid process Scott Gilmore: Useful Transparency vs. Meaningless Paper Chasing

Read More & Discuss

The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test

The following post was written by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator.  An op-ed from Bill in Monday's Wall Street Journal mentioned Till's struggles with USAID; here Till provides the details. The aid industry routinely pushes institutions in developing countries to become more transparent and accountable. But a slow and almost comically incomplete donor response to a request to see some specific project budgets sheds light on exactly how willing donors are to apply such “best practices” to themselves.

As I described in a previous Aid Watch blog post, I filed a Freedom of Information request with USAID after ten international NGOs working in the Republic of Georgia refused to publish their project budgets. After a painful, 14-month struggle, including failing to respond at all to my first three communications, USAID finally released a set of documents covering project budgets of 19 UN bodies, NGOs and private contractors.

A portion of World Vision project budget provided by USAID

The documents are disappointingly full of blacked-out non-information. The level of disclosure varies drastically from one document to the next. Some budgets are provided in full, while others appear as blacked-out row upon row. In three cases, USAID even withheld the identity of the contractor itself. USAID explained this inconsistency saying that it was legally required to contact each grantee to give it “the opportunity to address how the disclosure of their information could reasonably be expected to cause substantial competitive harm.”

I wondered why USAID is legally bound to follow its grantees' wishes in deciding which information to withhold. Can the grantees of a US federal agency really compel that agency to keep the total amount disbursed, or even their very identities, secret? Why doesn’t USAID specify full disclosure as a grant condition? I have filed an appeal with USAID to address these questions, and will keep the readers of this blog updated.

Since according to USAID every piece of blacked-out information was withheld on request of the grantee, the budgets provide a fascinating glimpse into aid agencies' willingness to open their books. If USAID blackouts do NOT correspond to NGO requests, I would be happy to correct the record.

Perhaps surprisingly, the United Nations showed the highest consistent commitment to transparency. The budgets of the two UN agencies funded by USAID are both reproduced in full.

UMCOR, Mercy Corps, and AIHA emerge as the most transparent NGOs. These charities apparently felt that they had nothing to hide, and did not request USAID to black out any of the information contained in their budgets.

In contrast, Save the Children apparently asked USAID to withhold all information related to salaries. As even the aggregate subtotals for international and national staff have been blacked out, concerns about the privacy of individual staff members cannot have been the sole concern driving the organization's response. Still, the fact that all non-salary related budget lines remain visible put Save the Children in the middle ground in terms of NGO transparency.

CARE's response is harder to interpret as USAID inexplicably sent only an aggregated “summary budget” that leaves little to conceal. What information exists shows that CARE did not object to the release of unit prices for supplementary food items, or of aggregated staff and operational support costs. In contrast, CARE appears to regard its “indirect cost rate” and “cost share” as confidential. To hide this information, USAID also had to black out the budget's bottom line, thus leaving unclear how many taxpayer dollars were handed over in total.

Portion of CNFA project budget provided by USAID

The least transparent NGOs in this test are CNFA, World Vision, and Counterpart International. They apparently requested that USAID black out all information in their budgets except for the grand total. Apparently, these NGOs consider budget items such as “office furniture” (CNFA), “visibility items (t-shirts, caps, publications)” (World Vision) and “forklift expenses” (Counterpart) as confidential information whose release could cause them substantial competitive harm.

What does this transparency test tell us? First, USAID's mechanism for responding to Freedom of Information requests desperately needs an overhaul. It took USAID 14 months to respond to a simple information request. Ironically, in terms of FOIA responsiveness, USAID is less transparent than public institutions in the Republic of Georgia, as recently assessed by a local watchdog organization. And we are still waiting to hear why USAID allows its own contractors to operate in secrecy whenever they wish. All of this places USAID in an awkward position as it recommends greater transparency and accountability to Georgia.

Second, NGOs have publicly committed themselves to transparency and accountability, but their actions show that their interpretations of what this entails in practice differ widely. For example, World Vision is a full member of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, but still asked USAID to hide all of its budget information apart from the bottom line. The Georgian country office of Mercy Corps had earlier refused to release its project budgets, but its headquarters apparently has no such reservations. Save the Children is willing to release indirect cost rates but refuses to divulge even aggregate salary information, while CARE appears more relaxed regarding human resource expenses even as it fiercely guards information on its indirect costs rates. Both USAID and the NGOs have too often violated the elementary principles of transparency.

Read More & Discuss

Separating the wax from the gold: social accountability in Ethiopia

This post was written by Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS. I was heartened to see that Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, blogged about my article Cruel Ethiopia in the New York Review of Books.

The article—and Dr. Devarajan’s blog—deal with the extremely delicate and complex relationship between economic and social development and human rights. He and I agree that there is no simple formula to explain this relationship. However, in order to help the poorest people realize their basic right to development, and to ensure our aid dollars are spent as effectively as possible, we need to try to understand it. That’s why I was troubled by this section of Dr. Devarajan’s blog.

Ethiopia has done well in reducing poverty and child mortality, and increasing primary completion rates because their system of delivering basic services has various elements of this accountability built in.  Local districts receive resources based on clear, data-driven formulae that can be independently verified (by third-party civil society groups). The allocation of these resources within the district is decided in community meetings, with the final budget posted on a central bulletin board for the community to see.

If only this were true.

Dr. Devarajan is describing the “social accountability” component of a World Bank-Ethiopia program to support health, education and other social services. In general, social accountability programs train community groups or NGOs to carry out surveys of local government budgets, monitor the quality of services such as clinics and schools, and publicize problems such as corruption or absenteeism among teachers and health workers. In an ideal world, these groups then work constructively and openly with local government officials to find feasible solutions to these problems.

Social accountability programs can be an extremely powerful mechanism for holding local authorities to account, building local democratic mechanisms, improving education and access to safe water, and even saving lives. A World Bank-sponsored evaluation of two such programs in Uganda found that one increased the amount of public education funding that actually reached schools nearly four-fold, and another increased the survival of children under five by one third, with no additional direct funding for health services.

When I first visited Ethiopia in late 2008, I was eager to see how the social accountability program that Dr. Devarajan refers to was working. But during the four visits I made to the country over the next 12 months, World Bank and other officials repeatedly told me the program had been only a small scale pilot program, that it had ended in 2008, and that an expanded program was planned, but would not start until after the elections in May 2010. So I am not sure what program Dr. Devarajan visited. Even in the pilot projects, the monitoring was not, by and large, done by “third party civil society” groups. Nearly all the NGOs were ruling party affiliates.

There is no automatic relationship between development and human rights. But it’s worth asking whether development can ever occur in a society where a government is deaf to its people. It seems to me that development takes root in societies that listen, either because the people truly have power, as in a democracy, or because the government is afraid of what would happen if they demanded it.

Read More & Discuss

A spoonful of transparency: good but no cure-all

The New York Times ran a story last week about a five-year-old Indian law that reinforces the right—and sets in place the process—for individuals to request government-held information. Ms. Chanchala Devi, for example, applied for a government grant she had heard was available to help poor people like her build their own houses. After four years of fruitless waiting, she used India’s Right-to-Know law to request a list of people who had received the money while she had not. Within days, the story reported, Ms. Devi’s own funding came through. The story continues:

…it has now become clear that India’s 1.2 billion citizens have been newly empowered by the far-reaching law granting them the right to demand almost any information from the government. The law is backed by stiff fines for bureaucrats who withhold information, a penalty that appears to be ensuring speedy compliance.

Great news. But while the law has empowered individuals (over 2 million of them in the first 3 years of the law’s existence) to seek redress for their grievances, the article also cites critics who complain that the law has not had hoped-for system-wide effects on corruption, and that it acts as a “pressure valve” without posing a serious challenge to the system.

Joseph Stiglitz, among others, has convincingly argued that information gathered and produced by government officials rightly belongs to the public; that people need such information to participate meaningfully in democracy; and beyond these arguments, that openness has an intrinsic value. A 2008 JPAL study gives Stiglitz an empirical assist: giving urban poor people access to published “report cards” about local politicians’ performance and spending influenced those voters to elect incumbents based on issues (rather than caste or religion, for example).

Possibly the most-repeated success story told about information disclosure comes from Uganda, where World Bank researchers found in 1995 that only 13 percent of national government transfers to local schools actually reached the schools. After the Ugandan government began publishing in the newspaper how much money was supposed to go to each school, the proportion of funds “leaking” out of the system decreased dramatically. Four years later, 90 percent of that money was reaching the schools, and the newspaper information campaign was given credit for the change.

Like most simple stories in development, this one is actually not so simple. A paper by Paul Hubbard at the Center for Global Development objects that the plummeting proportion of funds going astray has to be put in the context of comprehensive fiscal and education reforms going on in Uganda at the time. Another study found that information disclosure efforts like the famous newspaper campaign were only effective in communities “that were literate and assertive enough to act when abuse was revealed.” Hubbard observes: “transparency by itself is insufficient if there is no opportunity for collective action.”

Which brings us back to India, where the Right-to-Know law is helping Chanchala Devi—and hundreds of thousands like her—to get what she is entitled to from her government. Why should we want it to be a cure-all for India’s corruption ills? What drives us to search for panaceas and silver bullets? Any expectation that this law alone will tackle an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy is probably way too much for it to bear.

Read More & Discuss

Secret NGO Budgets: Publish what you spend

The following post was written by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator. Are you ashamed of your organization’s budgets? Do you think your supporters would be shocked if they could see exactly how you are spending their money? Do you feel the need to keep your finances hidden from your local partners and clients? If you answered all three questions with “yes,” you might be working for an international NGO.

After the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Transparency International (TI) Georgia, a local organization working on transparency and accountability issues, tried to track and monitor 4.5 billion dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid that donors had pledged. It was in for a shock.

Out of twelve NGOs that it asked to publicize the budgets of their ongoing projects, only one (Oxfam GB) complied. In an unusual display of interagency coordination, ten NGOs convened a meeting and wrote a joint letter to TI Georgia, arguing that they were unable to share their budgets at short notice as “there are a number of legal and contractual implications involved with donors, head office and other stakeholders which will take time to resolve.”

Nine of the signatories to the letter were members of InterAction, whose standards state that “organizations shall substantiate, upon request, that their application of funds is in accordance with donor intent or request” and that “the member organization shall be committed to full, honest and accurate disclosure of relevant information concerning its goals, programs, finances and governance.” In theory, the NGOs had committed themselves to transparency.

In Georgia, international development organizations have been advocating for greater transparency for years, teaching citizens that they have the right to know how their money is spent, ordering community-based organizations to publicly display the budgets of their micro-projects and telling local governments that they have the duty to provide financial information to those they serve. Years ago, I asked an NGO manager what he considered the greatest success of the project that he was running. “We finally got the district government to post its budget in the mayor’s office, where everybody can see it,” he proudly told me. When I suggested that he post his own project’s budget in his office, he recoiled. “This is an experimental project, so the overheads are very high,” he replied. “So it would be very difficult to explain.”

While there appears to be little hope of gaining access to project budgets through NGOs themselves, institutional donors are subject to legislation in their home countries. I filed a Freedom of Information request with USAID in May 2009 to request copies of the budgets of all NGO projects in Georgia funded by American taxpayers’ money. Six months later USAID informed me that it needed the consent of the NGOs to release this data as it might contain “confidential commercial information,” thereby closing the opacity loop: first NGOs had blamed donors for not being able to release budgets, and now the biggest donor was passing the buck back to NGOs.

After a series of follow-up emails to USAID's Information and Records Division had gone unanswered, I lodged a formal complaint with USAID's Inspector General in March 2010. Two months later, the Inspector General's office finally replied, saying “this matter does not fall within the investigative purview of our office” and passing the buck to the Director of Administrative Services. Meanwhile, one year after my original request for information, the budgets of US-funded NGOs in Georgia remain as elusive as ever.

Secrecy and charity make for strange bedfellows. Those who spend the public’s money in the name of the poor have a duty to make themselves accountable to rich and poor alike by publicly explaining how this money is being spent. Congress should step in and require USAID to publish what US-funded NGOs spend by posting full narrative and financial project proposals online as soon as a funding decision is taken.

Till Bruckner worked for NGOs in Georgia and Afghanistan before managing TI Georgia’s aid monitoring programme in 2008-2009. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on accountability and corruption in NGO projects in Georgia. The views in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TI Georgia. The author can be contacted at

Read More & Discuss

Red Sea parts, Development data set free

This week, the World Bank unleashed, a website that provides free access to 2,000 indicators about development. For years, only those who paid high subscription fees could access much of this data. One of us authors had been meaning for all those years to complain about this -- how could a public organization like the Bank charge high fees despite the obvious case for a free public good of data on development?! I never got around to making this criticism, and now it suddenly happened without any obvious cause.  (Maybe if I had procrastinated on another bit of criticism, the World Bank would now be refusing to finance tyrannical rulers.)

OK,  just teasing, congrats to the World Bankers for making their data wide open to any citizen, journalist, student, researcher, or policymaker with a computer and an internet connection.

The site includes the newly-released 2010 World Development Indicators (WDI), along with other widely-used Bank datasets: the Africa Development Indicators (ADI), the Global Economic Monitor (GEM), Global Development Finance (GDF) and indicators from the Doing Business report. The data covers 209 countries and goes back in some cases as far as 50 years.

Not only that, the Bank is taking some much-needed steps to make the data not just free and available but also user-friendly. For a start, the new visual interface for data exploration is clearly a big improvement over the old Bank statistics sites. Consensus from data and information architecture geeks around the web so far is that the site, created by Development Seed, is both good-looking and intelligently designed.

Getting ever closer to techno-data-utopia, the Bank will host an "Apps for Development" contest later in the year, and you can already download the new World Bank Datafinder app for the iPhone. Aid Watch's crack beta testers swung into action, and within seconds, we had a chart of trends in Rwandan air freight glowing on our iPhones. (Unfortunately, the chart had no data on Rwandan air freight since 1993. Oh and we could only get indicators on the iPhone that start with A, B, or C.  In fact, this app is pretty clunky- stick with the OECD Factbook app for the moment.)

A partnership with Google has made 39 indicators searchable on the experimental and extremely easy to use Google Public Data Explorer.

In the excitement over this very welcome release, we Aid Watchers can’t forget to keep asking the tough questions about where the data comes from, how it is collected, and where more and better data is urgently needed.

For example, regarding the recent controversy on maternal mortality statistics from 1980 to the present on this and other blogs,  we could quickly check for what years the World Bank was willing to stand by the data.  They limited themselves to providing  "modeled estimate" (i.e. made-up) data for 2005.  Apparently,  even the low standards of the Bank on this variable do not allow them to enter data for any other year.

And now, with the new openness, the more eyes on the data, the better.

Read More & Discuss

Telethon: "We've seen the earth quake but the soul of the Haitian people it will never break."

You might expect a certain critic of celebrity-aid to make fun of the Haitian telethon last night. And there were indeed some cringe-inducing moments in this 4-minute video summary I just watched.

But it's a little-known dark secret that crotchety skeptics often have a sentimental streak.  So what's really wrong about some well-meaning gushy-anthem-belting megastars raising money for some currently very needy people?

I just hope that some day we will get to the point where there will also be an anthem about accountability. Here's some lyrics by an anonymous contributor, for which I take no responsibility:

So clear the fogs/Listen to the blogs/Don't just throw dollars out the door/Make sure them reaches the poor.

Read More & Discuss

Christmas Charity Gift-Giving Video Edition: Peter Singer and I on

bhtv-2009-12-16-psToday, the New York Times-sponsored Bloggingheads.TV put up a 45 minute video discussion {video link: Peter Singer & William Easterly on}, where Peter and I discuss imposing tough love on the global poverty charities who take your Christmas gifts and donations.  I had given a critical review of Peter's latest book in the Wall Street Journal. Yet, Peter and I wound up agreeing that there is just as big a moral obligation on you to make sure your favorite charity gets the money to the poor,  as much as there is for you to give the money in the first place. Let's see, if I follow Peter's logic correctly, I think that implies that you have a sacred moral &  religous obligation, equivalent to rescuing a drowning child, to WATCH THIS VIDEO. After a lot of  criticism of NGO and offical aid lack of accountability and impressive fecklessness, including colorful insults and stories, we did get around eventually to making some positive recommendations on how you can give effectively, including specific charities (such as Women's Trust in Ghana) and monitoring web sites (such as the site Good Intentions are Not Enough).bhtv-2009-12-16-we

I hope this is not too much of a distraction, but I have to confess I really don't like talking to a camera, as will probably be apparent in this video (ouch). I love talking to real people in person, even 600 at a time, but talking to a machine is something that is still a work in progress for me. Maybe I should take lessons from one of the celebrity actors who work on aid -- now that is an area where they could use their skills productively!

Anyway, the message does come through loud and clear from both Peter and me: give, and, equally important, make sure your gifts reach the poor. Sounds so simple, and yet you have to work hard at the details to get it right.

Read More & Discuss

Aid Watch Grinch Edition: Are We Mean to Ask that NGO Ads not be Simplistic and Wrong?

In the spirit of the holidays, let's ponder the strategy of using forlorn children and their bellies for fund-raising, which seems to intensify each year around this time.

I was introduced to, a new marketing effort of the Children’s Hunger Fund by a friend over Thanksgiving dinner. I was pulled in by the simple message “Skip something. Feed a child.”

To illustrate this, the site has a video of plates of gourmet steak and veggies being transported from a table at an upscale restaurant to starving children in another country – still on their pristine white plates, served by a smiling waitress. If this bore any relationship to what CHF actually did, Aid Watch could evaluate the number of children served, how their parents were involved, whether these children grew up to grow their own food, the effectiveness of serving children on white china, etc.

Of course, aid veterans, although not the general public, know that direct donor-to-child transfers never happen because of high transaction costs, so the ad is already misleading in a very well known way. But then we find out that the reality is that CHF is not even primarily a food distributor. According to their website, they do send “Food Paks” around the world to needy families, not just children. The photo of a Food Pak features an American diet, including saltine crackers and animal crackers, intended to feed entire families.

However, according to Fred Martin, Communications Director at CHF, “In fact our Food Pak program is a small portion of what we do. We highlight it because it is our flagship program that we’ve seen work very well in building relationships with the poor so that deeper needs can be uncovered and responded to.” I learned from Fred they also provide beds in eastern Europe and medicines in Asia, which are not identified on their website or their annual report to donors (only the totals of aid given by country or region). By reviewing their financials (IRS form 990), one sees of the extent of their non-food work: 85 percent of their donations are, in fact, medical supplies and medicines; they also collect and distribute toys, bicycles, beds and millions of dollars of clothing (a form of aid that NGO critics like Good Intentions are Not Enough is critical of).

I believe in helping people with supplies that make a difference, so, why do I sound like a Grinch? Because I believe in honesty in conveying what a charity really does. This ad seems to take us back to the simplistic and wildly inaccurate Sally Struthers “save a child” world, long since discredited. Can we please hang onto progress in aid transparency when we make some?

Read More & Discuss

Fake it till you make it

A new report slams the UK’s aid agency with accusations of spending money on “Fake Aid.” Produced by the London-based International Policy Network (IPN), “Fake Aid” casts a critical eye on the agency’s communications programming, finding that “increasing amounts of DfID funds are channeled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fund lobbying activities, marketing and the promotion of political ideology, often within the UK.” The report uses DfID documents to show that the aid agency uses its communications budget to promote the human-rights based approach to development (which we have debated a number of times on this blog), intentionally crowding out other approaches. The budget for DfID’s communications programs has more than tripled since 2000, from £40 million in 2000 to £140 million in 2008.

Much of this money is spent through a group of NGOs—including Oxfam UK, Save the Children UK, ActionAid and Christian Aid—which receive unrestricted DfID funds thanks to long-standing relationships with the aid agency, rather than a competitive bidding process. According to a UK government audit document, open bidding was introduced after most of these organizations were already selected, and currently remains closed to new applicants.

DfID also lacks adequate information to judge whether the funds given to these organizations are appropriately spent, since reporting practices have been characterized by self-reported, inconsistent data, and a lack of external, independent evaluations, again according to a UK government audit and DfID annual reviews.

For example, over a five-year period, DfID faulted the Catholic Agency for Overseas Relief (CAFOD) for failing to provide “an overview of the progress and impact of the programme as a whole” and criticized them for measuring inputs rather than results, but still renewed their funding in 2008 for £13.8 million.

One organization funded by DfID persuaded the government of Gambia to ban all-inclusive package holidays, an outcome which seems to contradict the UK’s policy on trade and development to promote the private sector as an important driver of poverty reduction.

The effectiveness of another organization, both founded and entirely funded by DfID to “provide a forum for BME [black and ethnic minority] voluntary and community sector organizations and communities on issues relating to international development,” was challenged by an independent audit. The audit found that there was no working email address for almost half the group’s members, and that “there is a lack of clarity over the purpose of the organization.”

Despite these examples of poor practice, we would suggest a few points of disagreement with the conclusions in “Fake Aid”:

First, it is not unreasonable for DfID to spend money educating UK tax payers about what DfID does, or about international development issues, as the report implies. IPN calls this “propaganda” but doesn’t convincingly explain how “propaganda” is different from “making people aware of concepts that IPN happens to disagree with.”

Second, while £140 million is a sizable sum (enough for 230 million malaria treatments says IPN) it is still less than 3 percent of DfID’s total budget. In an industry with no consistent financial practices, it’s hard to say what is normal, but it would come as no surprise to find that most nonprofits, and most aid agencies, spend more than 3 percent on communications and publicity.

“Fake Aid” concludes: “As the total amount spent on these programs reaches the £1 billion mark, it is reasonable to ask whether they have improved the lives of people in poor countries.” It is a fair question. These programs may be an appropriate use of DfID funds, but the burden falls to DfID to prove it.

Read More & Discuss

Are the best aid agencies the ones about to die?

Recently the acting CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Rodney Bent, invited a group of development bloggers for a congenial chat over breakfast pastries about their new monitoring and evaluation website and “results” portal. This is in contrast, mind you, with another aid organization which shall remain nameless but which has the initials U and N, which told us a couple weeks ago that they “didn’t have a communication policy for blogs” and weren’t sure whether they could give us the document we were requesting (to their credit, they eventually did.) To say nothing of another agency that emailed us: “Hello. I have received your emails and phone call. However, WHO does not participate in blog discussions. Thank you.” And let's not even mention the other US aid agency, USAID, who responds to requests for information by demanding that we talk only to the USAID press rep whose full-time job is not responding to requests for information.

So the bar here is low. And the MCC isn’t perfect. But hey, it’s nice to be given a cup of coffee every once in a while and treated like you exist.

The personable Bent started the meeting with a little story: he recently visited a university classroom and completely disarmed the students—who were eager to rip apart any self-serving propaganda he served up—by being the first to enumerate the MCC’s own failings and weaknesses. The original MCC design team was too tactless about implying that USAID had been a failure, he said, “too optimistic,” too “eager to sign things.” Not to mention the problems MCC has run into in Armenia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Madagascar…to name a few.

This little anecdote seems to represent the MCC’s current savvy outreach strategy: be honest about your failings before others can beat you to it! Hence, the chat and the coffee.

The MCC says many of the right things. Publishing economic rates of return for their projects, providing M&E data for each MCC country in two formats, adding in data visualization and more collaborative feedback tools (all currently available or in the works over the next few months) is MUCH more than many other aid agencies are willing or able to do at the moment.

You can visit the new site here, and use the feedback form to get in touch with Shiro Gnanaselvam, the MCC’s senior director for monitoring and evaluation.

Still the most interesting question to me is, why is the MCC so proactively courting bloggers when other aid agencies tell us to drop dead?

Maybe it is because the MCC—a Bush administration initiative that has never been fully funded—has been predicted to face extinction if it can’t get broad support from the public and from some key power brokers in the new administration.

Could this be a tiny piece of evidence in favor of the theory that effective accountability sometimes requires a threat to your very existence (as with private firms or with the political careers of elected officials)?

The organization with the least vested interests supporting it may be the one that will perform the best. At least, they actually invite their critics to breakfast.

Read More & Discuss

Congress to USAID: Stonewalling is SO over

Yesterday from a deliriously happy press release of Publish What You Fund:

Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, today introduced the Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009 (HR 2139), a bipartisan bill designed to increase accountability and improve the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid

The bill:

instructs federal agencies to make aid information on a detailed country-by-country and program-by-program basis in a comprehensive, timely, comparable, and accessible fashion.

Could we dream that USAID would one day provide aid-watching citizens with basic information, as opposed to treating them like enemy combatants? That USAID could be more like its British cousin DFID, that instead of us spending weeks in getting a simple question still not answered, we could get an answer in 5 minutes?

That this could even change USAID’s behavior, so that egregious waste and diversion of funds are no longer seen as a good reason to keep doing business as usual?

As always, a timely response from USAID on these questions would be welcome.

Read More & Discuss

USAID Responds to 'Life in the Aid World'

Kudos to the USAID press office for replying to us quickly when we sent them our post on the USAID Inspector General’s report of misuse of funds in Afghanistan. They replied with this statement: The USAID IG severely criticizes the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for their management of the Quick Response Program in Afghanistan, conducted between 2003-2006. We recognize that Afghanistan is a difficult place to work, but we still expect all of our partners to maintain recognized standards of accountability and transparency.

We have implemented additional control and oversight mechanisms to ensure this type of activity does not occur again. We are also seeking reimbursement for $7.6 million of unsubstantiated UN expenses.

Q) How much money was lost to "contractor abuses"?

USAID is seeking reimbursement of $7.6 million in funds drawn-down by UNDP in 2007 that have not been fully substantiated. A bill of collection for that amount was referred to the U.S. Treasury for action.

At present we are working with the UNDP and UNOPS to fully account for the funds. USAID's Acting Administrator met with UN leadership in New York on Monday, April 13, 2009 to discuss this issue and the way forward.

Q) What programs does USAID still have with UNDP/UNOPS? What measures has USAID taken to ensure accountability and quality of work?

Now we have three active grants with UNDP and one with UNOPS. The active awards for UNDP include support for the 2009 Afghan Presidential elections.

UNOPS: Kabul School Construction Program – This program has been well managed from the beginning and is working well. Access to the schools here by inspectors and USAID staff has helped keep this program accountable with good quality of work.

Q) What changes have been made to the USAID/UNDP/UNOPS relationship?

USAID committed to continue working with UNDP to resolve questions over $7.57 million in unaccounted for USAID funds and to improve collaboration between these agencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Mr. Melkert pledged UNDP’s full cooperation with USAID in reforming UNDP’s project management practices, improving financial accountability and in recovering any missing QIP funds.

Q) What changes has USAID put into place as a result of the IG report?

Over the past year, USAID has adopted significant safeguards to protect U.S. taxpayer resources. Safeguards on our UNDP projects include:

- Amending the traditional Letter of Credit (LOC) method of financing by requiring additional financial documentation and USG review and approval prior to each disbursement;

- Mandating the hiring by UNDP of an additional dedicated financial management staff member on the project;

- Requiring that all USAID funds be separately tracked and reported on a monthly basis; and,

- Increasing technical oversight by Mission staff.

In addition, the Kabul Schools Program, implemented by UNOPS, has been carefully overseen by USAID. This program is under the advance/liquidation method of financing (as opposed to the traditional letter of credit), thus providing USAID with greater financial management oversight. Additionally, USAID has two full-time staff overseeing the Kabul Schools program. These engineers are at the worksite at all times when work is being performed.

Q) Is UNDP managing the 2009 Afghanistan Presidential elections?

The 2009 Afghan elections are being managed by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan with the assistance of the UN. USAID is working with the UN in preparing for those elections. It is critical that the upcoming elections be perceived as independent, so the donor community has agreed to pool funds in a UNDP-managed project to support the elections. USAID is participating in this pool, but is imposing significant additional safeguards on UNDP.

Summary of IG Report

  • In August of 2007, the USAID/Inspector General’s office received an anonymous complaint about abuses by the UN with regard to grants in Afghanistan. The subsequent investigation by the IG office was completed in the summer of 2008, and confirmed several serious problems with financial management and overall performance.
  • UNDP withdrew an approximate $6.7 million in 2007-after the Quick Impact Project ended and without consultation with USAID. No supporting documentation was provided to explain the reasons for these withdrawals.
  • UNOPS has provided a letter accounting for approximately $1.9 million of the amount drawn down in 2007.
  • Due to the refusal of the UN to cooperate with the investigation of the USAID, questions remain unanswered with regard to the overall conduct of UNDP and UNOPS in Afghanistan.
  • On February 5, 2009, USAID referred three Bills of Collection against UNDP and UNOPS to the U.S. Treasury Dept for a total of $7.6 million dollars. As of March 3, 2009 those Bills of Collection had been referred to a private collection agency which has 270 days to do collection efforts.
Read More & Discuss

Life in the Aid World: Caught Red-Handed, No Consequences

Last week, a report in USA Today brought to light a story of aid funds going badly astray. In case you have not followed the story, it seems that back in 2003, USAID contracted with the UNDP and UNOPS to complete a series of “quick impact” infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, to build badly needed roads, bridges, and community buildings. A US government report on the project, sparked by a tip from an anonymous complainant, found that many of the projects reported as “complete” by the UN were in fact unfinished or had such “life-threatening oversights” that they could not be used. The USA Today reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to access the government report, which he then published along with the article.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

  • According to a former UNOPS employee, some $10 million of the USAID grant funds was diverted to projects outside of Afghanistan, in Sudan, Haiti, Sri Lanka and, most memorably, Dubai.
  • The UNDP withdrew $6.7 million of project funds in 2007, after the project had ended and without USAID’s knowledge. The investigators could not pin down how those funds were spent.
  • A bank was built for $375,000 without electricity, plumbing or proper drainage. The report found that the basement had flooded, destroying stacks of money, and the walls were rotting.
  • A $250,000 bridge, reported as “completed,” was dangerous and unusable, having been designed too small for the site where it was built.
  • An airstrip budgeted at $300,000 actually cost $729,000 to build. After a description of the major engineering flaws in the construction of the airstrip, the report concluded that military planes cannot safely land there and that “erosion rills or ruts will continue to expand until they reach the runway itself, destroying it completely.” In other words, USAID paid $729,000 for a patch of mud.
  • There may be more to come: “questions remain unanswered” because several UN officials refused to be interviewed and the UN failed to provide requested documents during the investigation.

USAID is also to blame for choosing such a bad contracting arrangement, and for not having procedures to catch this earlier and seek full compensation. USA Today reported:

Federal prosecutors in New York City were forced to drop criminal and civil cases because the U.N. officials have immunity. USAID has scaled back its dealings with the U.N. and hired a collection agency to seek $7.6 million back, Deputy Administrator James Bever said. The aid agency hasn't heeded its inspector general's request to sever all ties.

"There are certain cases where working with the U.N. is the only option available," Bever said in an e-mail.

At a UN briefing last week, the UNDP spokesman said that “there have already been a number of meetings, including at the highest level of UNDP and USAID, to work through this matter.” He said that he expected that the UNDP would have to pay USAID no more than $1.5 million.

A disastrous aid outcome, exposure in the mass media -- so what were the consequences? A number of meetings, possibly some money back, USAID disregards its own Inspector General’s request to break off ties with the UN (some unspecified “scaling back” except in other unspecified “certain cases”), and yet more meetings “at the highest levels.”

Since the initial reports, there has been no further media coverage or commentary except for an editorial critical of USAID in the Las Vegas Sun on April 17th. The USAID web site accessed on Monday, April 20, 2009 still listed as implementing partners UNDP (who announces it “remains responsive to the changing needs of a nation still in transition from conflict to peace”) and UNOPS (“we help our clients turn ideas into reality.”)

The USA Today story broke the same day that a USAID rep presented at a meeting in Washington called "Open Innovation for Government: Answering President Obama's Call for More Open, Effective Public Service."

Read More & Discuss

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.

Read More & Discuss

Unsung Hero Resurrects US Tied Aid Reporting

Official US aid policy is to slow down emergency aid as much as possible when people are dying. Well, they probably wouldn’t put it like that, but that is the consequence of a practice known as aid tying, whereby US aid must be spent on products from US companies. For emergency food aid, this causes huge delays in food shipments as the food has to come from the American Midwest rather than from easily available sources close to the emergency site. reported in December 2008 on the six-month journey of a bag of dried peas from Nebraska to Ethiopia, while in Ethiopia a grandfather watched seven of his grandchildren starve to death, victims of a famine foreseen for months.

Everyone from aid cheerleaders to aid skeptics decries aid tying. The US was reputed to be one of the worst offenders, but we didn’t know for sure, because the US government brazenly stopped publicly reporting how much of its aid was tied back in 1996 (unlike all other rich country donors). In 1996, when the US stopped reporting complete tied aid statistics to the OECD, 28 percent of its aid was untied, while the donor country average was 71 percent.

But now for some good news. USAID has finally restarted gathering and reporting data on how much US foreign assistance is tied. As far as Aid Watch can find out, this did not reflect any change in official policy at the top. One working level USAID staffer simply took the initiative on their own to do the right thing and report aid tying (apparently there are Searchers and not only Planners at USAID). Transparency is the first step to accountability for aid. Alas, incentives for transparency are weak (as far as we can tell, Aid Watch is the first to notice the end of the 9-year hiatus in US aid tying reporting).

The USAID official responsible for this change in 2006, who preferred to remain anonymous in our blog, said that the general trend in the US is towards less tied aid across the board, citing new programs under the MCC, HIV/AIDS activities, and aid to sub-Saharan Africa which are not subject to tied aid requirements. The new statistics now show 69 percent of US aid to be untied (as of 2007), compared to an average for all OECD donors of 85 percent.

“I developed a methodology for the identification of tying status based on solicitation notices, blanket untying, and other factors,” the USAID official said in an email message. Calling for a more transparent form of reporting for all donor countries, he said that reporting from other donors is at times “not supported by actual open bidding at the prime contractor level…so I wanted to perform the identification as correctly as possible.”

Hopefully, more transparency will lead to more accountability for reaching the poor. As recently as 2003 a document on the USAID website shamelessly stated: "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of USAID's contracts and grants go directly to American firms" (source). As the international campaign for untying aid has gathered force, such self-interest has become less acceptable (the 2003 document is no longer on the USAID web site.)

There is still a ways to go. Virtually all US food aid is still required to be produced and packaged right here in the US (according to the original text of the mammoth, much-amended and much-maligned Foreign Assistance Act of 1961—that's PL 87-195 Sec 604(c) for anyone who wants to look it up).

Going back to even more dusty and remote legislation, it is the 1936 Merchant Marine Act that requires 75 percent of US food aid to be shipped on US-flag carriers. That’s money in the pocket of the US shipping industry, a blow to fair and free markets, and a failure for aid efficiency: a 2007 report by the GAO found that a major challenge continuing to hinder the efficiency of US food aid programs was “legal requirements that result in the awarding of food aid contracts to more expensive providers and contribute to delivery delays.”

In early 2008, with global food prices on the rise, the Bush administration tried to convince Congress to allow 25 percent of US food aid to be sourced locally—to allow aid agencies to buy food closer to where people need it and get it to them more quickly, cutting out the slow, cross-continental journey of the Nebraskan dried peas. But Congress quickly voted this down.

Last June, a remarkably diluted version of the Bush proposal was finally passed, creating a pilot program to “test” the results of local and regional food aid purchases. While the Bush plan would have allocated $300 million, this program is capped at $25 million per year (about 1 percent of the US food aid budget). An article in Business Week quoted former USAID administrator and Georgetown Professor Andrew Natsios’ reaction to this bill: “We don’t need a pilot like this. It works, we know it works.”

While the political coalition that funds international aid continues to prefer US shipping and farm interests over saving poor people’s lives, today we can count one small victory for aid transparency. In order to reform destructive aid practices, we need to know what those practices are. Thanks to the efforts of one unsung USAID staffer, we are a little bit closer to that goal.

Read More & Discuss