I came across a post at CGD today commenting on the new site ForeignAssistance.gov set up by the US government, of which I was completely unaware. When you click on the site you find a seemingly revolutionary web portal containing data on where and with what aims American foreign aid is spent. It is not too different – although a bit more comprehensive and accessible – than DFID‘s own new website. However, I hesitate to celebrate ForeignAssistance.gov as a success: while it does increase the transparency of aid data, it tells citizens disappointingly little about the aid process, much less the actual challenges of development.
Take a look at the site’s top navigation menu: the third tab reads “What You Should Know”, under which the first link is entitled “Top 10 Things You Should Know”. A priori this seems like the ideal place for introducing taxpayers to the nuances of development, a gigantic task in which aid plays only a very small – and slightly uncertain – role which is often misunderstood in public debate. Instead, what we get is the following: 4 points about data transparency, 3 about budget process, and 3 about country and sector classification.
It’s an aid auditor’s fantasy!
How baffling – how telling – that the “Top 10 Things You Should Know” list neglects to include any point at all about how and why the eponymous foreign assistance seeks to promote human development or structural transformation. Which leads me to believe that ForeignAssistance.gov has nothing to do with aid effectiveness at all: it is just the aid counterbureaucracy – to use Andrew Natsios‘s term – updated for the 21st century.
Make no mistake, aid wonks: this looks like progress, but it’s not. ForeignAssistance.gov is not a revolutionary new step in aid effectiveness, but a tactical concession to a recalcitrant US Congress so enamored of attacking aid. At a time when most of us argue for greater nuance, analysis and complexity in aid practice, a website full of numbers is at best a distraction, and at worst a tragically missed opportunity.