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When no one was watching, Congress passed a pretty important bill to improve foreign aid

2nd Annual Save The Children Illumination Gala - Inside
Raj Shah, the former USAID administrator whose emphasis on evaluation is reflected in the bill.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Save the Children
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On July 5, the US Congress did something remarkable: It passed a law.

In a time of historic gridlock, the fact that the House and Senate were able to agree on much of anything, much less a bill that President Obama quickly signed, is fairly remarkable. It’s even more impressive when the bill in question is a substantial piece of legislation on a fairly divisive, important topic.

The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016, however, was able to beat the odds. It first passed the House by voice vote in December, and then an altered version passed the Senate unanimously in June. On the 5th, the House agreed to the Senate's changes, sending the law to Obama, who signed it on the 15th.

What the bill does

The bill is a bipartisan effort, with 14 Republican and 9 Democratic co-sponsors in the House. The lead sponsor, Ted Poe of Texas, is a Republican, and some very conservative members like Ted Yoho (R-FL) are on board, too, along with moderate Democrats like Adam Smith of Washington and reliable progressives like Oregon's Earl Blumenauer.

Meanwhile, the Senate companion bill was sponsored by Marco Rubio and co-sponsored by two liberal Democrats (Ben Cardin of Maryland and Chris Coons of Delaware) and one Republican (Johnny Isakson of Georgia).

The bill's broad appeal can be explained in part by the innocuousness of its goal. The bill doesn't try to start new transparency or evaluation initiatives; rather, it makes permanent many of the efforts to make foreign aid programs more evidence-based that were begun by Obama's former US Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Raj Shah, a political appointee who is beloved on Capitol Hill by members of both parties. (You can read a summary of a new book chapter he co-authored summarizing his views on this issue here.)

Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, told me in January that while the bill doesn't do a whole lot that the agency administration can't already do on its own, it ensures that the Obama administration's push for evidence continues into the future.

The biggest potential, she argues, 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. "It's attempting to say, 'This input got this end result,' and show that in a transparent and publicly available way. … 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.

"It does have some requirements," Dunning explains. "Every program that is above the median of the agency's programs [in size] must have an evaluation. So the majority of programs in every agency must have at least one evaluation in the lifetime of the program."

It is also "quite heavy" on data reporting requirements, Dunning says, which, while good for transparency, doesn't do much to improve the quality of data being reported. In general, though, agencies get a lot of leeway on implementation, meaning evaluation-friendly administrators will still be needed if the bill is to meet its goals.

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 been positive movement here, as the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program isn't exempt and counts as security aid, but much of the foreign aid budget is still excluded.

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."

For all its limitations, this is a step forward

All that said, Dunning's overall assessment is that the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act is a modest positive step. "It's nothing shocking to those of us in the development community, because these kinds of hallmarks of good aid practice have been happening for a while," she says. "But what the bill does is actually authorize them and legislate them, which I think is quite important."

That assessment is echoed by a number of aid experts, like Brookings's George Ingram, and advocacy groups like Oxfam and ONE, which were all on board for the bill. After passage, Ingram told Devex, "I think it’s a very significant action by the Congress."

Once the law is formally enacted, Devex’s Adva Saldinger explains, the clock starts and the president has 18 months to establish "guidelines, according to best practices of monitoring and evaluation studies and analyses for the establishment of measurable goals, performance metrics and monitoring and evaluation plans that can be applied with reasonable consistency to covered United States foreign assistance."

Obviously, that's likely to happen under President Clinton or Trump, not Obama. Then another 18 months later, the comptroller general is required to submit a report evaluating those guidelines and assessing how well they're being implemented.

All of which is to say that this is a long process, and the law’s passage is just the start. There’s plenty more in the US foreign aid system in need of reform. But the hope is that by pressing for more evaluations and making their results easily and publicly accessible, the legislation will expand the evidence base policymakers can use to devise reforms in the future.

Correction: This article previously stated all security assistance is exempt from the bill; one security program is subject to it.