Greater Transparency Can Improve U.S. Security Assistance Programs

sw15-osf-poe-60x80By Abigail Poe
Deputy Director, Center for International Policy
Director, CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor


sw15-osf-hartung-60x80William Hartung
CIP’s Arms and Security Project

Security assistance – the arming and training of foreign military and police forces – is a crucial tool of U.S. foreign policy. The goal of this type of assistance is to foster stability, bolster allies, and promote human rights and good governance. Done well, these programs can make all of us safer by preventing or reducing armed conflict. Done poorly, they can be used to undermine human rights, fuel conflict, and enable corruption on the part of recipient governments.

Transparency International has aptly summarized the reasons it is so important to carefully monitor security assistance programs: “The protection of the lives of citizens, nations’ territorial integrity, armed forces’ ethical integrity, vast sums of money, and the international security environment are all at stake.”

Unfortunately, there has been no systematic analysis of what works and what does not work when it comes to the provision of U.S. military aid. In part this is because there are so many programs to keep track of. The Pentagon alone funds and implements 18 weapons and training programs, and it added six more just last year. It is extremely difficult for the public, the media, or most members of Congress to get comprehensive information about these programs – what they cost, what they are designed to do, and whether or not they have been effective. More accountability in military and police aid programs must begin with greater transparency.

The gap in public information on the U.S. government’s far flung assistance efforts is what prompted the creation of the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM), a website and public education project that provides the best available data on U.S. military and police aid, organized in a user-friendly format and supplemented with regular analysis of key programs and activities. In addition, SAM seeks to persuade the U.S. government to provide more timely and detailed information on these programs.

The U.S. government has far to go in providing adequate information on its aid programs. The Department of Defense received a poor rating in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. In the words of foreign policy expert Diana Ohlbaum, the index “ranks major international donor agencies on the degree to which they share aid information in a way that is timely, comprehensive, comparable, and accessible.”

Greater transparency can make a real-world difference in how U.S.-supplied arms and training are utilized in recipient nations. For example, after Amnesty International learned that Zimbabwean police had used U.S.-made tear gas canisters in the killing of several civilians, they used U.S. government reports on commercial arms transfers to help the United States stop a trafficking network from continuing to funnel such U.S. equipment to the Zimbabwean government. In Colombia, SAM’s predecessor project, Just the Facts, successfully encouraged the United States to create stronger oversight and accountability measures in its aid programs, which helped reduce impunity by Colombian security forces.

The Obama administration has acknowledged the need for greater military aid transparency. The challenge now is to implement it. In his May 2014 speech at West Point, the president asserted that “we must be more transparent in our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out,” so that we do not “erode legitimacy with our partners and our people and … reduce accountability of our own government.” And last year, after years of public pressure, the Obama administration pledged to engage in consistent monitoring and evaluation of these critical programs. One of the best ways to ensure that U.S. military aid programs improve is to make these analyses readily available to the public.

The proliferation of U.S. military and police aid programs in the past several years underscores the need for mechanisms to evaluate their effectiveness. Pressing for greater transparency is a good place to start.

Abigail Poe is the Deputy Director of Center for International Policy (CIP) and the Director of CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor. William Hartung is Director of CIP’s Arms and Security Project.

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