U.S. Foreign Assistance Portals are Inadequate to Assess Reform on Locally Led Development

By Katerina Parsons*

USAID Administrator Samantha Power / Flickr / Creative Commons License

USAID has committed to increase direct assistance to local partners around the world – rather than directing aid through governments, international NGOs, or for-profit contractors – but civil society groups will have difficulty holding the agency accountable without significant changes to existing transparency portals.

  • In a recent speech, Administrator Samantha Power announced that USAID would increase assistance to local partners to 25 percent of total funding – short of earlier commitments but more than the current 5.8 percent. By the end of the decade, she added, 50 percent of USAID programming would “place local communities in the lead,” allowing them to co-design projects, set priorities, drive implementation, or evaluate programs’ impact. The NGO community has long called for these goals.

The U.S. government’s searchable foreign assistance trackers are still inadequate to assess progress, however.

  • ForeignAssistance.gov was relaunched in October, combining the State Department tracker of the same name with USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer, which will no longer be updated. Aid organizations applauded the change for streamlining data, but the new site still does not include key data, such as the percentage of foreign assistance that is locally led, or even which implementing partners are based in the countries where they work. Many awards list no supporting documents detailing participants or outcomes; those that do include this information as a PDF file that is not searchable and cannot be easily compared across awards.
  • Some additional information can be found on other U.S. government sites. USASpending.gov, the open data source for all government spending, includes sub-award data for USAID, listing the percentage of the total amount that is sub-awarded and recipient names and sub-award amounts. Because most small, non-U.S. organizations that receive U.S. funds do so indirectly through sub-grants; this information is crucial for transparency.

An example – a Honduran organization for which I worked for several years – illustrates the challenge of tracking aid. According to USASpending.gov, as a USAID sub-grantee on a governance and citizen participation project, it received $787,000 over an eight-year period (FY2011-18) – enough to fund a small office of Honduran auditors, researchers, and legal experts who created a national corruption complaint mechanism, conducted social audits of government agencies, and led consultancies to strengthen the country’s higher courts. While substantial, this funding represented less than 4 percent of the $19.8 million total granted to the U.S. NGO managing the project. The U.S. NGO provided 36 percent of the total grant to Honduran implementing partners. Neither USASpending.gov nor ForeignAssistance.gov account for the remaining 64 percent of award funds.

  • This gap between amount awarded and amount delivered to community-based partners is not atypical. A $34.2 million violence-reduction award (FY2016-23) granted to a major U.S. contractor has given out just 13.1 percent of its funding in sub-contracts – and those only to U.S. and Honduran businesses, not Honduran NGOs. A $4.1 million “civil society and media activity” grant (FY2018-20) awarded just $80,000 to Honduran civil society organizations.
  • USASpending.gov does not code this as “international” or “local” spending; first-hand knowledge or web searches are required to determine the recipients. ForeignAssistance.gov provides even less detail.

USAID’s promises of millions of dollars to empower local organizations so far have not been complemented by a commitment to make public data on localization more transparent. One straightforward fix would be to add a search query to ForeignAssistance.gov for “recipient type” such as “local,” similar to USASpending.gov, where one can filter by contract recipients owned by women, minorities, or veterans.

  • Information on sub-grantees or sub-contractors (local, U.S., international) is also lacking. Additional clarity on the term “local” is also merited; USAID does not distinguish between “local entities” and “locally established partners,” which may be national chapters of international organizations. Particularly in larger multicultural countries, “local” leadership may still not be proximate to communities being served.
  • Fulfillment of Administrator Power’s pledge “to interrogate the traditional power dynamics of donor-driven development and look for ways to amplify the local voices of those who too often have been left out of the conversation” will depend on making public data on localized development transparent enough to make proximate leadership in foreign assistance – or the lack of it – more visible.

December 16, 2021

* Katerina Parsons is a master’s student in Development Management in the School of International Service. This article is based on research done for the Accountability Research Center, where she is a research assistant.

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