During a time of historic gridlock, the US Congress did something remarkable: It passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016. This bill makes permanent many of the efforts to make foreign aid programs more evidence-based.
The biggest potential, according to Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, comes from the bill’s focus on estimating the bang for the buck that each aid program is getting. “What it attempts to do is connect the dollar to the result of the dollar,” Dunning says. “Actually being able to know what we can get dollar by dollar across the agencies could have huge potential in making sure our resources are going to places with the highest impact.”
But the bill is short on specifics about how to actually generate that information, providing relatively little guidance on what kinds of evaluations should be done or how to compare the effectiveness of programs with less quantitative goals, such as initiatives promoting democracy and the rule of law.
Dunning’s biggest grievance is that the bill mostly exempts US military and security aid to other countries, which makes up a huge fraction of total foreign aid budget. (Case in point: Israel, a rather rich country by any metric, is our top aid recipient.)
There’s no reason this kind of aid couldn’t benefit from rigorous evaluations, too. “We know the dollars that are put into these programs, and in some cases the budgets are quite large,” Dunning says. “But they have no idea of the output/outcome results of these investments.”