By Amin Vafa
In early March, as the number of cases of individuals with coronavirus surged past 400,000 worldwide, the U.S. government announced $274 million in emergency foreign assistance to combat the pandemic, a figure that by mid-summer would increase to more than $1.6 billion provided to more than 120 countries. In times of crisis, the ability to receive accurate and up-to-date information is critical, and people want to know: “Is everyone communicating the same information?” “Is this information accurate?” “Is this communication transparent?” and “In the age of pandemics, how does what happens abroad impact Americans at home?” To answer some of these important questions, and ensure that clear and consistent communication on foreign assistance efforts were broadcast widely, Department of State leadership leaned on the Office of Foreign Assistance (F).
F’s mission is to make U.S. foreign assistance more strategic, coordinated, and effective by aligning policy, planning, and performance management efforts; promoting evidence-informed decision-making; and providing strategic direction for Department and USAID foreign assistance resources. When the COVID-19 outbreak escalated worldwide, F led the foreign assistance response. They coordinated the more than $1.6 billion emergency funding provided by Congress, fielded and prioritized requests from missions and embassies, teed up new podium announcements for the secretary of state on a bi-weekly basis, and served as the go-to point for foreign assistance data.
F regularly fielded data requests from the White House and interagency and established a rapid response operation that provided clear, accurate, and up-to-date information to leaders across the executive branch. This information was provided through a blend of analytics and visualizations, and coordination with the Department’s Coronavirus Data Analytics Team (part of the Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit) and the COVID-19 Task Force at USAID. F’s Data Analytics, Transparency, and Accountability (F-DATA) team was responsible for these products, demonstrating strong U.S. leadership with data to back it up. F-DATA operates as a Department-wide resource for foreign assistance data requests, helping bureaus and missions highlight the impact they have overseas with the right numbers. To help uncover these stories, stakeholders need to know two fundamental questions: “What are we, the U.S. government, doing?” and “Where are we doing it?” These two questions lead the vision of the F-DATA team and its antecedents.
ForeignAssistance.gov was one of the first steps toward realizing this vision; the website was launched in December 2010 by the Department and USAID as a data repository in response to a series of international commitments to improve aid effectiveness. Over time, new needs and mandates prompted the Department to seek broader solutions—and ForeignAssistance.gov was the answer. First, agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Peace Corps began reporting their aid data. Then came the tools, like Explore, which maps budgetary and financial figures across time and space, to bring the public closer to the data. As the website’s partners and tools grew, so too did its mission. Now in its 10th year, ForeignAssistance.gov is a data service provider that enables users to connect the dots on U.S. aid dollars, recipients, strategies, evaluations, and objectives from 22 federal agencies—accounting for each U.S. agency that manages foreign assistance dollars. F-DATA’s forthcoming consolidation of ForeignAssistance.gov with USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer website will further advance F’s original mandate to align American diplomacy and development objectives. This will put the aid transparency data in the hands of the public.
Services like these are designed for public use, demonstrating full transparency about where taxpayer dollars are going; still, other services are designed for Department decision-makers. In 2014, the Department established the Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR) working group to address bureaus’ myriad business processes for capturing and reporting foreign assistance data. FADR spearheaded multiple solutions, from training tailored to bureaus to a Communities@State page hosting Department-wide guidance. These moves spurred a sea change in the quality and availability of Department data, a feat recently recognized by a top aid transparency watchdog, Publish What You Fund. An increase of improved data, in turn, opened analytical doors previously closed to Department leadership. F-DATA now builds dashboards tailored to the needs of seventh-floor principals and program analysts alike to equip them with the information they need to share stories about the Department’s impact abroad.
As the Department continues harmonizing systems that capture foreign assistance data and leveraging the data for analytics, it will be available to tackle the next tier of critical questions about assistance impact: “How are we doing?” and “Can we do it better?” Now more than ever, answering these questions is fundamental to the health, safety, and stability of America and its partners.
Telling the story of American leadership is critical to accomplish the Department’s foreign policy objectives abroad, and data helps to do that with confidence. Over the past 20 years, the federal government has been laying the groundwork for a strong response to a pandemic overseas, like the COVID-19 pandemic, through foreign assistance. Particularly with investments in health and humanitarian sectors, with more than $140 billion invested in global health alone over the past 20 years, a figure developed by the F-DATA team that has been used across the interagency, Congress, and beyond. To help provide context on the federal response and to create a clear and consistent message for senior leaders and the American people, F and the F-DATA team brought together decades of foreign assistance data into comprehensive factsheets and easy-to-read data visualizations depicting both the latest COVID-19 investments and U.S. investments over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the U.S. government’s decades of leadership in foreign assistance is here to stay. To be sure, data is no panacea. These tools and capabilities do not hold all the answers, but improved data can help America’s diplomats and development professionals to ask better questions and further align resources with policies, strategies, and performance metrics. For that, the Office of Foreign Assistance and F-DATA are here to help.
Amin Vafa is the data analytics, transparency, and accountability lead in the Office of Foreign Assistance.