Deciphering US Foreign Assistance: My Summer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Mix an AidData fellow with the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and you get a lot of number crunching, copious amounts of coffee and, ultimately, a greater appreciation for how US foreign assistance is being invested abroad. Bridging the gap between those conducting research and setting policy is a major priority if aid is to become more transparent and effective. Helping people make sense of data on foreign assistance is one important step to getting there.

Over the summer, I spent 10 weeks as an AidData fellow with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) analyzing US foreign assistance on a country-by-country basis. Working alongside SFRC staff, I developed briefing materials for senators on the composition of foreign aid distributed to countries of interest by the US and other bilateral and multilateral donors.

Congressional Budget Justifications break down the US State Department’s budget by country and account. The US government has a plethora of spending accounts with specific foci from which all funds are drawn. Some accounts are intended for nonproliferation or security, whereas others are for economic development or reconstruction. Attending hearings on US embassy security, Zimbabwe’s elections, health concerns in central Africa, and transition in Afghanistan, I realized that the US considers foreign assistance broadly. Beyond paying for vaccines, mosquito nets, new building construction or school supplies, foreign aid is, in fact, dense, complicated, and changeable.

Despite commitments such as the Open Aid Partnership, there is still surprisingly limited transparency regarding international aid flows, posing a problem to governments, corporations or civil society organizations interested in tracking foreign involvement in developing countries. Another difficulty in making sense of foreign assistance is that categories of foreign assistance are often not uniform and are defined differently, inhibiting easy comparisons between aid from the United States with that from other countries.

In briefing senators, I synthesized diverse information sources to provide a more complete picture of the countries receiving aid and the donors providing assistance. Indicators used by the Millennium Challenge Corporation to select compact countries, such as political stability and absence of violence, accountability, and control of corruption, provide a helpful baseline understanding of a country’s challenges and grounds for discussions on necessary reforms. I used reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to capture what other countries are doing abroad and developed my own broad categories of foreign aid projects to facilitate comparisons with US spending patterns.

My time at the SFRC gave me first-hand insight into some of the major challenges in making sense of foreign aid in our own government. I learned important lessons along the way regarding what it takes to make information usable for policymaking. Time is critical and in short supply at the SFRC, so the ability to extract relevant information on foreign assistance quickly from a database can make the difference as to whether it actually informs decision-making or not. In addition, finding ways to visualize raw statistics through charts, graphs and maps help convey information more intuitively. I’m proud that the briefing materials and methodology I developed this summer increased the transparency of, and understanding about, foreign assistance to inform real-world policy solutions. 

A junior at the College of William & Mary, Alexandria "Joe" Foster worked as an AidData fellow with the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee this summer. She previously worked with AidData's project on tracking Chinese development finance and also completed a national security fellowship.

Tags: aid effectivenessUnited StatesMCCdata visualizationsOECDforeign policyaid transparencyUS Congress


Ms. Foster's experience and observations illuminate the murkiness of traditional sources of aid data. Her application of filters, uniform categories and common terminology bring greater clarity and transparency to the presentation of data, improving its comparability and practical relevance globally, as organizations, governments and individuals struggle to direct scarce aid and development resources so as to yield the greatest benefit. Our planet is so small and its development challenges are so great. To Ms. Foster and to the AidData family of researchers who are helping to address these challenges: Well done.