State Department must do more to make foreign assistance for children transparent

Child Rights

In Children’s Budget 2020, First Focus on Children sought to identify and categorize — for the first time — how much of the U.S. foreign assistance budget benefits children and youth. Our analysis found that federal funding is spread among 26 to 30 offices, depending on the fiscal year. We synthesized data from various government entities, non-governmental organizations, experts, coalitions, and other stakeholders to inform our work and to find the best data for making our assessment. We found that the U.S. government currently does no centralized tracking and monitoring of funding streams that specifically benefit children. Rather, myriad accounts, sub-accounts, and program directives both directly and indirectly benefit children abroad. Unlike the domestic side of the budget, international expenditures on children are difficult — and sometimes impossible — to track until years after they are disbursed.

Based on our experiences, First Focus read with interest the recently released report from the General Accounting Office that recommended improving monitoring and evaluation of the State Department’s Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR). Launched in 2014 in response to concerns from members of Congress, the State Department Inspector General, and the GAO about the Department’s ability to track and report foreign assistance, the FADR was intended to modify the existing agency-wide data systems to improve financial and programmatic data. It was largely completed by December 2020. The GAO’s report, entitled “Foreign Assistance: State Department Should Better Assess Results of Efforts to Improve Financial and Some Program Data,” found that while the State Department had implemented most of its plan, it still had no mechanisms in place to know whether FADR was addressing the problems.

GAO’s review of the FADR assessed the status of the State Department’s plan to improve tracking and reporting of foreign assistance. The FADR plan addressed some data gaps and changed requirements for getting foreign assistance data. However, a State IG report found that many bureaus managing foreign assistance were unaware of the planned changes to agency-wide systems. Furthermore, the FADR plan lacked a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) component to assess effectiveness, address any problems or challenges, and ensure compliance with affected bureaus.

The FADR changes were applied between fiscal years 2017 and 2020. Yet, when First Focus on Children included these fiscal years in our Children’s Budget, we found that it was still challenging to track data. The GAO report also stated two tracking systems, ForeignAssistance.gov and Foreign Aid Explorer are to be consolidated. We found the ForeignAssistance.gov website difficult to navigate and worry about the data integration with Foreign Aid Explorer.

Funding for children is either opaque or impossible to track without the adoption of practices and procedures designed to better follow the investments. While we are pleased to see the FADR plan being implemented, more must be done to make this funding transparent and allow stakeholders to track progress on these programs. We suggest soliciting feedback from non-governmental organizations as part of the monitoring and evaluation plan to ensure the FADR plan improves and fulfills its stated goals. Policymakers cannot make international budgeting priorities without knowing how effectively they address the most vulnerable populations—including global children and youth.