OTG Holds Town Hall on Foreign Aid and Security Assistance Transparency

OTG held a community Town Hall event yesterday featuring speakers with years of experience promoting public access to information on U.S. security and development aid. Our presenters — Abigail Poe Akre [Director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy (CIP)], Catalina Reyes [Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund], and Laia Griñó [Senior Manager of Transparency, Accountability and Results at InterAction] — discussed their ongoing research and advocacy efforts, the information on aid the government keeps hidden from public view, and why this information is critical for the public to hold government accountable.

Abigail started with a presentation of CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor (SAM), which Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists has called an “impressive new resource for journalists and students of international security policy.” Abigail discussed SAM’s efforts to document all publicly accessible information on U.S. security and defense assistance programs throughout the world, including arms sales, military and police aid and training programs –and how this type of information is critical for ensuring greater government accountability, transparency and oversight of the U.S. government’s security and defense assistance worldwide. The SAM database has been an essential resource to illuminate trends in U.S. foreign security overseas, such as the rapidly increasing Department of Defense assistance and training for counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. Challenges to security assistance transparency include the increasing use of “For Official Use Only” markings that prevent Congress from providing the public access to important information. Delayed and outdated reporting providing by agencies to Congress also poses a challenge to efforts to document U.S. security assistance abroad.

Our next speaker, Catalina Reyes, delivered a presentation on U.S. government foreign assistance transparency. Catalina highlighted the United States’ international commitments on aid transparency: as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) the U.S. government has committed to publishing information on all U.S. official development assistance according to an international standard under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) by the end of 2015. It is unlikely that all federal agencies will meet this deadline; indeed more than half of the U.S. government’s development flows are not published to the IATI, and most of what is published is out of date. There is also concern among civil society about the quality of the data being produced on the central government website for publishing aid data – ForeignAssistance.gov. Civil society has called for the next OGP National Action Plan to include a commitment to improve the quality of foreign assistance data collected and published, and to increase the accessibility, understanding and use of open data by all stakeholders.

Laia Griñó, the final presenter, further emphasized the importance of aid data, and how a lack of transparency and poor data quality can hinder decision-making and adversely affect development outcomes. Laia led the audience through ForeignAssistance.gov, presenting the type of information the government has made available through this platform. She highlighted a number of other NGO and government sources, such as USAID websites, that contain important information on aid data that is not centralized on the ForeignAssistance.gov platform. Laia emphasized that, for at least some agencies, much of the data people need is out there, but not centralized in an organized and accessible format. She then presented the NGO Aid Map, an InterAction initiative that aggregates data on its NGO members' government and privately funded projects. Laia finished by noting how Washington spends billions on internet technology, but still cannot manage to build organized, efficient, and usable websites for public information access due in part to overly complex procurement processes.

The Town Hall continued with a discussion about the lack of “bandwidth,” or capacity, and the lack of political will across the U.S. government for transparency initiatives. One participant made the argument that transparency efforts would pay for themselves if implemented by exposing and eliminating waste in public spending.

Other issues addressed included the need for aid data at the project level, as well as the need for security assistance information at the unit level in order to expose abusive security forces receiving U.S. assistance in violation of the Leahy Law

OTG’s Emily Manna sent out live tweets during the discussion, you can find them here: #OTGTownHall

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