Foreign Assistance:

Middle East Partnership Initiative Offers Tools for Supporting Reform, but Project Monitoring Needs Improvement

GAO-05-711: Published: Aug 8, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2005.

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In December 2002, the U.S. Department of State (State) established the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. MEPI provides assistance for political, economic, and educational reform and women's empowerment. In fiscal years 2002-2004, State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reviewed U.S. bilateral economic assistance programs in the region to ensure they were aligned with the new U.S. policy focus on promoting democracy and reform. In this report, GAO (1) describes MEPI's structure for managing projects and allocating funding, (2) examines MEPI's uses of the reviews, and (3) evaluates MEPI's project monitoring.

MEPI has worked with U.S. embassies, USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C., and USAID missions overseas to manage projects and obligate funding. In turn, MEPI and its partners have negotiated agreements with nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and other U.S. agencies to implement the projects. MEPI has obligated about 45 percent of the $129 million that it received for fiscal years 2002-2003, and its partners have obligated the remainder. MEPI used the State and USAID reviews of existing U.S. bilateral economic assistance programs in the Middle East and North Africa in two ways. First, in response to the reviews, MEPI targeted reform activities in the Middle East and North Africa that were not being addressed by other U.S. agencies. For example, responding to the reviews' finding that little progress had been made in supporting women's political involvement, MEPI provided funds to assist women candidates. Second, MEPI shaped its strategy in response to the reviews, particularly regarding the need to monitor projects' short-term results and hold project implementers accountable for project performance. Despite its strategic emphasis on monitoring projects' performance, MEPI's monitoring has been limited by unclear communication of roles and responsibilities and a lack of complete project information. MEPI has acknowledged these deficiencies and begun to address them; in July 2005, State and USAID agreed on a framework for project monitoring roles and responsibilities. Without the ability to evaluate its projects' performance with certainty and access to complete information, MEPI's capacity to meet its strategic goals of producing tangible results and making results-based decisions is limited.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To bolster MEPI's ability to monitor and evaluate project performance, and to help ensure that MEPI achieves its goals of producing tangible results and making results-based decisions, the Secretary of State should ensure that MEPI managers clearly delineate, document, and communicate roles and responsibilities for project monitoring.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of the recommendation, State made the accomplishment of the recommendation part of its strategic goals in its FY2005 Performance and Accountability Report. Since that time, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has made efforts to address GAO's recommendation and to achieve its strategic goal. MEPI has articulated responsibilities for MEPI project officers and has communicated that information to MEPI project officers in various ways. In September 2006, MEPI organized a conference in Tunis, Tunisia, that addressed the expectations for project monitoring by MEPI project officers in the field. Since then, MEPI has presented sessions related to grants management and project monitoring at regional offices in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., and Tunis for embassy staff with MEPI responsibilities. MEPI's introduction of a new project management database in October 2006 has assisted MEPI staff in understanding their project monitoring responsibilities. For instance, the database provides notices to staff when a quarterly report is due from a project implementer, so that staff can follow-up accordingly. Subsequent to that, MEPI requires that each MEPI officer that reviews quarterly reports has 30 days to sign-off on whether information in quarterly reports matches up to a program's performance goals. MEPI disseminated a Monitoring Tool Kit in October 2006 that provides every member of the MEPI staff with guidance to effectively monitor and evaluate its programs. In 2007, MEPI added a module to the Foreign Service Institute's training of new Foreign Service Officers on project monitoring and has presented sessions related to project and grants management in area studies programs there. In 2007, MEPI asked its regional offices in Tunis and Abu Dhabi to help identify those officers who will be grants officer representatives for MEPI-funded or embassy-funded grants. MEPI has then invited those officers for consultations and training prior to their departures for post. MEPI has retained the services of a contractor for performing periodic monitoring visits overseas. In 2007-2008, MEPI tasked a third party contractor to perform in-depth program-by-program evaluations on a selection of several key MEPI projects in several countries in which MEPI provides assistance. MEPI recently amended and extended the contract with plans for three additional in-depth program evaluations for the coming year. In 2008, MEPI developed an 18 month monitoring and evaluation schedule that identifies the programs in need of an evaluation and the priority level associated with such an action. Finally, from October 2007 through Sept. 2008, MEPI has sent out its Washington-based Project and Grants Officers 47 times with guidance on performing financial and programmatic site visits for existing active programs.

    Recommendation: To bolster MEPI's ability to monitor and evaluate project performance, and to help ensure that MEPI achieves its goals of producing tangible results and making results-based decisions, the Secretary of State should ensure that MEPI managers systematically obtain, maintain, and communicate complete information regarding all MEPI projects, including performance and financial data.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of the recommendation, State made the accomplishment of the recommendation part of its strategic goals in its FY2005 Performance and Accountability Report. Since that time, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has made efforts to address GAO's recommendation and to achieve its strategic goal. One of the primary ways in which MEPI is now obtaining, maintaining, and communicating MEPI project information is that MEPI has a new database, released for use by project implementers and project monitors alike in October 2006, called the Performance Reporting System. The Performance Reporting System organizes all MEPI project data from the time the first proposals are solicited to the completion of the project and gives visibility of that information to all relevant parties in the U.S. and in the field. MEPI management, as well as MEPI HQ, field, and embassy staff conducting project monitoring, can all view information in the system. The system also allows project implementers access to view their project goals and timeliness for submitting project information such as quarterly reports, which can be inputted directly into the system. The system notifies project monitoring staff so they can be reminded to keep project implementers on time and working toward meeting project goals. It also allows MEPI project monitoring staff to match up implementer activities with project goals, which helps ensure quarterly reports contain useful and necessary information for project management. In addition, MEPI has supported frequent interactions the last 2 years among the various parties in charge of monitoring MEPI projects, including MEPI HQ staff visits to the field offices and embassies in countries where MEPI has projects. Additionally, MEPI HQ and field staff and embassy officials charged with MEPI project responsibilities have conducted some joint project monitoring visits. These project visits, as well as project monitoring visits conducted by the 3rd party contractor, Management Systems International, have allowed MEPI to collect more project information.

    Recommendation: To bolster MEPI's ability to monitor and evaluate project performance, and to help ensure that MEPI achieves its goals of producing tangible results and making results-based decisions, the Secretary of State should ensure that MEPI managers regularly assess MEPI's progress in communicating roles and responsibilities and obtaining, maintaining, and communicating key information.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of the recommendation, State made the accomplishment of the recommendations part of its strategic goals in its FY2005 Performance and Accountability Report. Since that time, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has made efforts to address GAO's recommendations and to achieve its strategic goal. MEPI had taken some key actions implementing the recommendation to monitor its progress in addressing the challenges of unclear roles and responsibilities and incomplete information and communication. MEPI management in 2007-2008 has put in place some measures to proactively assess MEPI performance and keep project monitoring a priority. MEPI's Deputy Director recently began an initiative to collect formerly decentralized policy and procedure guidance and bring it together for a MEPI Grants Management Policies and Procedures Manual that explicitly describes the MEPI grant making process and clearly delineates, documents, and communicates the roles and responsibilities of Project Officers, Grants Officers and Grants Administrators. Before MEPI finalized its latest contract with its 3rd party contractor, it determined that MEPI needed to have an individual focused on identifying monitoring and evaluation challenges and quickly recommending solutions. To that end, the contractor provided an experienced staff member who is now charged with proactively seeking out ways to improve project performance and seek process and management improvements. For instance, the contractor will develop monitoring and evaluation training workshops targeting grants and project officers to enable them to be better prepared to monitor and evaluate projects. The contractor will also review past evaluations to "mine" them for recommendations and lessons learned common to the various evaluations. These reviews will also ensure that the recommendations were implemented and processes improved. Furthermore, the contractor will coach MEPI management, and will work directly with MEPI senior management to incorporate already existing MEPI database status reports into their day-to-day operations management of MEPI activities. This can provide timely updates of outstanding monitoring and evaluation action items by project and/or grants officers. Finally, the in-depth evaluations that are done by MEPI's 3rd party contractor are not just of the programs MEPI is implementing, but they also include an assessment of MEPI's role and performance as well. These evaluation reports are a key tool in assessing MEPI and the changes that it needs to undertake as it develops as an office.

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