USAID/OIG Highlights Challenges to the Management and Administration of Foreign Assistance

Posted: 3:24 am ET
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On March 15, the new USAID Inspector General Ann Calvaresi Barr went before the Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations during its review of the FY2017 budget request and funding justification hearing for USAID. She told the subcommittee that in FY2016, OIG issued 698 financial and performance audits and reviews with more than 1,268 recommendations for improving foreign assistance programs.

These audits identified approximately $290 million in questioned costs and funds to be put to better use. OIG’s investigative work led to 10 arrests and 91 administrative actions such as suspensions, debarments, and terminations of employment. OIG also realized nearly $85 million in savings and recoveries in FY 2015 as a result of its investigations. In addition, OIG provided 270 fraud awareness briefings and training sessions for close to 8,600 attendees in 36 countries.

She talked about changes in the USAID OIG operations:

On the horizon are changes to improve OIG’s work to ensure it has a meaningful impact on the strategy, policy, and practice of U.S. foreign assistance. This includes building and maintaining a workforce equipped with the right guidance, skills, and resources to evaluate complex development programs, unravel sophisticated fraud schemes, and address new oversight requirements.
[….]
In addition to recruiting and developing top-notch staff, I am committed to making certain that OIG has the right internal policies, processes, and systems in place to meet the highest standards for reliable and meaningful oversight. The quality of our audit and investigative work must be beyond question.

Most importantly, she highlighted to Congress the many challenges to the management and administration of U.S. foreign assistance:

Work in nonpermissive environment:

Work in nonpermissive environments is a leading challenge for foreign assistance agencies. Programs in conflict-affected settings face greater risks than those operating in more stable environments. These risks typically include a more acute threat to the lives of U.S. Government and implementer personnel. In these settings, in addition to limited access to projects and threats to safety, USAID often confronts dishonest and opportunistic actors who look to prey upon the influx of foreign aid. In some cases, instability and weak institutions threaten both the immediate progress and long-term benefit of development efforts. Agency staff and implementing partners alike face severe constraints in monitoring the progress of development and humanitarian assistance activities in these settings. Shortfalls in these activities can lead to health and environmental hazards, such as those we observed in a camp for displaced persons in Iraq. They can also create conditions for pervasive fraud and diversion. OIG, for example, recently documented the large-scale substitution of basic hygiene and food items intended for displaced Syrians with substandard materials. In other cases, we have noted the diversion of humanitarian goods to terrorist groups, and uncovered a case in which a sub-implementer received funds for a range of humanitarian assistance activities that it never performed. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan we found that a lack of access to project sites constrained USAID’s ability to observe 74 percent of the projects it funded.

Unreliable data: collection, reporting and use

[T]he collection, use, and reporting of unreliable data in connection with development programs. OIG has identified poor data quality as a concern across a spectrum of USAID’s programs, irrespective of geographic location or functional area. Of 196 performance audit and survey reports OIG published from FY 2013 to FY 2015, about 4 in 10 identified problems with data quality or sufficiency. OIG has repeatedly identified errors and overstatements, gaps in data collection and reporting, and problems in the consistency with which underlying calculations are made. Recent OIG work on USAID’s Ebola response activities, for example, found that the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance lacked adequate performance measures given the nature of the Ebola crisis. OIG identifies data quality problems in more traditional development programs as well, as indicated in recent reports on justice system reform efforts, activities under the Feed the Future Initiative, and education programs. Without reliable data that meaningfully speaks to program results, USAID cannot effectively manage its programs or plan new ones. Moreover, absent reliable information on program progress, policymakers are unable to make fully informed decisions on the course of U.S. foreign assistance.

Sustainability:

USAID’s long-term goal is to transfer ownership of its development initiatives so that the progress and results from its projects continue. To achieve this end, USAID is responsible for building sustainability into its plans and activities. Notwithstanding this aim, sustainability remains a major management challenge and OIG has often found that USAID planning for the end of projects has been inadequate. About a quarter of performance audit reports OIG issued from FY 2013 through FY 2015 contained recommendations to do more to ensure sustainability. In one case, we noted an HIV/AIDS project lacked a formal transition plan 3 years after the project began, threatening its continuation. In other cases, OIG has found that a lack of host country support, including the limited capacity of some USAID partners, reduced the likelihood that development goals could be realized and sustained. Recent OIG reports on programs in Afghanistan and Armenia, for example, noted that local partners lacked the ability to effectively support or continue USAID programs.

The capacity of host country governments and local implementers can indeed determine the success or failure of development efforts. In recognition of the need for technical capacity within host country systems, USAID’s Local Solutions Initiative aims to provide direct funding to host governments and to local private and nonprofit entities. Yet, USAID’s risk mitigation efforts in association with this initiative have not been consistent and this constitutes another significant management challenge for the agency as a result. OIG audit and investigative work over the years has provided evidence that agency and partner controls are unable to effectively safeguard funds in many of these cases. The U.S. Government has channeled a sizable share of assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan through local systems, for example, but not always demonstrated sufficient accountability for these funds. In FY 2015, we issued a report on USAID’s controls over direct assistance in Afghanistan, identifying shortcomings in both its oversight and in how it communicated about employees’ responsibilities and the expectations placed upon Afghan implementers. In Pakistan, a direct assistance program to support municipal services in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) fell short in part because the mission failed to effectively work with the grantee, KP’s Planning and Development Department, which lacked adequate capacity to implement the program on its own.

Human resources management, decentralized IT and information security:

Two additional challenges facing USAID pertain to the management of its human resources and decentralized management of information technology (IT) and information security. Audit work last year continued to indicate that USAID faces a shortage of experienced, highly skilled personnel familiar with USAID guidelines, standards, and processes. Staff retained under the Development Leadership Initiative pointed to irrelevant training, poor support in preparation for overseas assignments, and being assigned roles that were less than those of other employees as problems facing a major hiring effort in recent years. We also found that staffing shortages have hampered program implementation and oversight in many locations where USAID operates.

On the IT front, OIG has noted the lack of an effective risk management program as well as a substantial number of open recommendations from prior IT-related audits. OIG deems this to indicate a significant deficiency in the security of USAID-wide information systems, including financial systems. An audit relating to the agency’s privacy program for information technology identified new weaknesses and risks related to potential noncompliance with major privacy laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974, as amended.

The full testimony is here (PDF).

 

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