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The Role of Statistics in Reforming U.S. Foreign Assistance Policy

1 January 2010 2,330 views No Comment
Jana Asher, Executive Director of StatAid, and Michael Kisielewski, Senior Research Specialist at StatAid

    The ancient Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” usually is thought of as a curse. But in terms of U.S. domestic and foreign policy—and, specifically, the potential of the statistics community to have a positive impact on that policy—we believe living in interesting times presents a great deal of opportunity. As President Barack Obama finishes his first year in office, the state of the economy, climate change, health care reform, and the continuing war in Afghanistan all vie for center stage in U.S. politics, and statistics has something to contribute to each of those issues. However, there is an issue that is not as prominent, but just as important, that deserves the attention of the statistical community: the need for reformation of U.S. policy and protocol concerning foreign assistance.

    Foreign assistance is financial or material aid provided by one country to another, without expectation of compensation or reimbursement. The United States first provided massive foreign assistance following passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948 (i.e., the Marshall Plan), which provided more than $12 billion toward economic recovery in Western Europe after World War II. Although several other congressional acts related to foreign assistance were passed since then, today’s model for U.S. foreign assistance is based on the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which paved the way for the creation of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

    The problem is that although the world has changed dramatically since 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act has not. It has been subject to a series of amendments over time, but the result has been a convoluted piece of legislation that has led to foreign aid programs operating under overly burdensome procedural requirements—and being housed across 25 federal agencies.

    In that context, a coalition of foreign assistance and global development experts—the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN)—developed a proposal for reforming U.S. foreign aid policy. Released June 1, 2008, and titled “New Day New Way: Foreign Assistance for the 21st Century,” it called for a new foreign assistance act and the streamlining of foreign assistance through a cabinet-level Department for Global Development. Most importantly to statisticians, it called for strengthening monitoring and evaluation (M&E) procedures and greater accountability in the provision of foreign assistance.

    In response, both the Senate and House of Representatives began to work on bills that would revitalize foreign aid policy. On April 28, Rep. Howard Berman of California and Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois introduced the Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009 (H.R. 2139) to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bill, which has met with the approval of MFAN, authorizes the development by the president of a new national strategy on global development, requires greater transparency for all U.S. foreign assistance programs, and calls for the creation of a system for monitoring and evaluating development programs and aid.

    Exactly three months after H.R. 2139 was introduced, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts introduced the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009 (S. 1524) to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Senate bill amends the existing Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 by calling for increased transparency of foreign assistance programs and new staff positions at USAID to develop and coordinate policy, strategic planning, and evaluation of program effectiveness. Specifically, within Section 624B, it calls for integrating “monitoring and evaluation into overall decisionmaking and strategic planning.”

    Support from both major political parties is growing for both bills. On November 17, 2009, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved S. 1524; the bill currently has 18 cosponsors. Although H.R. 2139 has not yet been voted on by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it had 121 cosponsors as of late November.

    The executive branch also has expressed interest in foreign aid reform. On July 10, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a quadrennial diplomacy and development review—a review of current U.S diplomatic and development practices and the creation of a blueprint for future diplomatic and development efforts. Clinton’s announcement was followed on August 31, 2009, by Obama’s signing of a presidential study directive that calls for a review of U.S. global development policy.

    With all the bipartisan support for reform of foreign assistance policy—and specifically of better monitoring and evaluation of programs supported by foreign aid—the need for the input of the statistical community might not be readily apparent. But USAID has long operated without in-house technical expertise on monitoring and evaluation, and administrators of aid projects are often reluctant to set aside funds for evaluation purposes that could be used for direct aid. The gold standard for evaluation—a randomized design—is hard to sell to project directors who wish to see aid go to the most needy and don’t understand the need for randomization of treatment groups. Those project administrators who are open to good monitoring and evaluation techniques might find that local statistical capacity is too sparse to allow for proper M&E. And although there has been steady development of M&E techniques over the past few decades, more research is needed on best practices for monitoring and evaluation within the difficult contexts present in the Global South and transitional countries.

    There are many ways—big and small—that the statistical community already has contributed to the debate on foreign aid policy reform. Proponents of stronger monitoring and evaluation for development aid programs have organized sessions on that topic at the Joint Statistical Meetings and have written scholarly articles about the subject. The ASA volunteer group Statistics Without Borders has produced reviews of monitoring and evaluation plans proposed for USAID-funded food assistance programs. Other statisticians have operated more independently, lending their expertise to members of the development assistance community who have requested their help.

    As the debate continues, we propose that the statistical community as a whole—and the American Statistical Association specifically—take a more active role. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has openly requested input as it continues to discuss H.R. 2139, and the American Statistical Association could issue a position statement to them on how better monitoring and evaluation practices could be implemented. Volunteers—independently or through Statistics Without Borders and/or the ASA Special Interest Group on Statistical Volunteerism—can continue to work with development aid agencies and their contractors to support monitoring and evaluation efforts. And statisticians can voice their support of S. 1524 and/or H.R. 2139 to their own representatives and senators over the coming months.

    We do live in interesting times, and the potential for constructive change in U.S. foreign assistance policy is great. The statistical community has much to contribute to such change. Will you join us? If you are interested in doing more to work toward reform of U.S. foreign assistance (e.g., writing to your legislators in support of new foreign aid policy) or would just like more information about the topics covered here, please email Jana Asher at asher@stataid.org with the subject line “Development Aid.” If you would like to learn more about Statistics Without Borders or the Special Interest Group on Statistical Volunteerism, contact Gary Shapiro at g.shapiro4@verizon.net.

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