The U.S. Foreign Aid Freeze
On August 3, 2019, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ordered two federal agencies to temporarily freeze billions of foreign aid funding. This decision ordered the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide accounts for all unobligated resources of foreign aid. Rachel Semmel, a spokeswoman for the Budget Office, said the order aims to ensure accountability. According to the Associated Press (AP), the letter lists 10 areas that the U.S. foreign aid freeze targets, including development assistance, global health programs and United Nations peacekeeping. In total, the freeze puts $2 billion to $4 billion of congressionally-approved funding on hold.

Subsequent Response

The U.S. foreign aid freeze has met with bipartisan criticism. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel said that the Trump administration has amounted to contempt and emphasized that congressionally-approved foreign aid is law and backed by the Constitution. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s criticism was harsher, labeling the freeze insane. In a letter to the OMB, lawmakers from both parties agreed that cutting foreign aid and development spending would not be in the interest of national security.

Critics of the OMB’s decision point to the fact that foreign aid spending makes up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget. Before the freeze, the U.S. spent $30 billion annually on programs to reduce global poverty. Liz Schrayer, the chief executive of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, claims the OMB is cutting one of the smallest portions of the federal budget, but one that could have catastrophic impacts on U.S. economic and national security interests.

Impacted Countries

The U.S. foreign aid freeze will directly affect Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries. The nation consistently ranks very low in various health indicators, such as life expectancy, infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate. In addition, an estimated one million people or 9.2 percent of adults in Malawi live with HIV/AIDS with an estimated 13,000 deaths annually. In Malawi, USAID works to improve the quality of life by supporting development, education and health programs, especially those that prevent and treat malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Due to the Trump administration’s order, Malawi may not have aid for the remainder of this financial year. According to documents that Foreign Policy obtained, the freeze could also affect foreign aid to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Funding for UNICEF projects to protect children account for a large portion of the U.S. foreign aid freeze. One of these programs involves early childhood education and development in Uzbekistan. According to UNICEF, only 30 percent of Uzbek children attend preschool while 70 percent are unable to achieve their full potential due to a lack of early education. UNICEF is rolling its program out across six regions in Uzbekistan and it has designed it to increase access to quality education for children. Regional instructors have trained 2,159 preschool teachers in child-centered learning and model schools, which have increased enrollment by 2,841 children. The U.S. foreign aid freeze will have a direct impact on similar programs across the globe.

Bipartisan Solution

On August 15, 2019, the OMB sent an official rescission request to the State Department to cut foreign aid funding by more than $4 billion, yet canceled the request a few days later. Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has made numerous attempts to cut foreign aid funding, and in some cases by as much as 30 percent. Members of both parties in Congress firmly rejected all attempts. Daniel Runde, former director of the Global Development Alliance (GDA) in the Bush administration, says development, diplomacy and defense experts are in full agreement that the Trump administration should work collaboratively with Congress to create a more robust and sustainable approach to foreign aid and development.

– Adam Bentz
Photo: Flickr

Improving the Transparency of U.S. Foreign Aid with Open Data was launched to increase the transparency of U.S. foreign aid programs. A massive data gap, if left unaddressed, may undermine the site’s raison d’être.

In 2011, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was forged to institutionalize a multilateral means of promoting governmental transparency and citizen engagement. OGP seeks to translate bureaucratic goodwill into actionable commitments, which ideally come to fruition through processes made public to the citizenry.

Since its inception, the initiative has amassed an impressive headcount of 70 countries and cycled through numerous National Action Plans, or two-year commitment itineraries designed to keep participants in line.

The Obama administration released its third Open Government Plan a year ago. Framed as a matter of fiscal transparency, the question of foreign aid manifested in a renewed vow to “raise awareness, increase accessibility and build demand for foreign assistance data.”

A similar pledge was made in the Obama administration’s first Open Government Plan, which commissioned, in conjunction with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, the creation of

The website collates, reports and visualizes the foreign assistance data of qualifying federal agencies. Easy on the eyes appearance-wise and optimized for public consumption navigation-wise, comes across as a user-friendly heuristic and win for transparency of U.S. foreign aid.

A recent evaluative probe conducted by the General Accountability Office (GAO) in September, however, revealed that not all is well beneath the website’s sleek, shiny interface.

By comparing data with that of USAID, the GAO report found that over $10 billion in disbursements made by participating agencies went unreported on the website in 2014. Around $6 billion in obligations was also missing, and the regular updates promised in OGP blueprints had long subsided.

Even though all agencies contributing to the data bank are required to measure up to the same standard of detail, not all tracking systems are created equal. When surveyed prior to the GAO investigation, the agencies confirmed that limitations on access and technology prevented them from ensuring quality control.

Because the website fails to make such limitations explicitly known, odds are that the stakeholders and other consumers who took the data to be accurate and up-to-date were, in fact, crunching misleading numbers.

With all signs pointing toward misinformation — a notion that goes against the very essence of the OGP mission — the White House had to act fast to stem the damage. As a result, was included in a series of U.S. Open Government initiatives rolled out weeks after the GAO let its watchdogs loose.

In an interesting move, the initiatives, which are part of the third U.S. Open Government Plan, conjoined transparency in foreign assistance with security sector assistance.

The Department of Defense (DoD) was implicated in a plan to increase the accountability of U.S. defense institutions, because of which it must now up the number and quality of its data contributions to

Although the commitment signals the White House’s acknowledgment of the website’s deficiencies, it falls short of GAO recommendations, which have been seconded by USAID, OMB and the Department of State.

Living up to them requires more cooperation with USAID and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as a visible pronouncement of limitation disclosures on the website.

Following through accordingly would be as much an act of public service and as a fulfillment of OGP transparency principles. U.S. foreign aid beneficiaries and other stakeholders can benefit greatly from comprehensive reportage on foreign assistance spending — but only if they are made fully aware of the data’s strengths and weaknesses.

Jo Gurch

Photo: Flickr