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U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve Its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects

GAO-20-388 Published: May 12, 2020. Publicly Released: May 12, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-20-563SP.

Since 2008, the U.S. and Mexico have collaborated on the Mérida Initiative to fight violence, drugs, and transnational crime. U.S. agencies managed $3 billion in assistance projects, including training and equipment.

For the 15 State Department projects we reviewed, State monitored implementation and performance inconsistently—making it harder to assess progress and improve if needed.

For the 5 USAID projects we reviewed, USAID monitored implementation and performance well. But monitoring could be more cost-effective if plans addressed implementation risk to projects.

Our recommendations are to help the agencies improve their monitoring.

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For the Spanish translation of the highlights page for this document, see GAO-20-563SP.

What GAO Found

For the 15 Department of State (State) Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (State/INL) projects GAO reviewed, State/INL generally followed key monitoring practices about half of the time. (See figure.) For example, State/INL almost always assigned staff with appropriate qualifications to monitor Mérida Initiative projects. However, for most projects, State/INL did not generally follow the key practices for developing monitoring plans that identify project goals and objectives and address risks to achieving them. Furthermore, State/INL did not consistently track project performance data. By establishing procedures for following key monitoring practices, State/INL would be better positioned to stay well informed of its projects' performance, take corrective action when necessary, and help ensure that projects achieve intended results.

For the five United States Agency for International Development (USAID) projects GAO reviewed, USAID almost always followed key monitoring practices and tracked performance data. USAID established procedures, such as periodic portfolio reviews, to ensure its staff consistently monitored projects. While USAID identified risks to implementing projects, it did not address those risks in its monitoring plans. (See figure.) Developing monitoring plans to address risks could help USAID determine the appropriate level of oversight for each Mérida Initiative project and manage monitoring resources more cost effectively.

Extent to Which State/INL and USAID Follow GAO Key Practices for Selected Mérida Initiative Projects


Why GAO Did This Study

The Mérida Initiative is a bilateral U.S.-Mexico partnership to address crime and violence and enhance the rule of law in Mexico. Through this initiative, managed by State/INL and USAID, the United States has provided a wide range of assistance, including training and equipment. Since fiscal year 2008, U.S. funding for the Mérida Initiative has totaled about $3 billion. GAO has identified key practices for monitoring foreign assistance programs that agencies should implement to address impediments, effectively manage foreign assistance, and meet assistance goals. These practices are generally consistent with policies of State, USAID, and the Office of Management and Budget.

GAO was asked to review issues related to Mérida Initiative implementation and objectives. This report examines the extent to which State/INL and USAID follow key practices in monitoring Mérida Initiative projects and track project performance against established measures. GAO reviewed State and USAID documents and data for a nongeneralizable sample of 20 high-dollar value projects, and interviewed officials from State; USAID; and other U.S. agencies in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that State establish procedures to verify monitoring staff follow key practices, and that USAID ensure that monitoring plans address risks. State and USAID concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that State/INL establishes procedures that verify that monitoring officials for Mérida Initiative projects follow the key practices. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
State/INL has taken several steps to address GAO's recommendation. State/INL developed new bureau-wide INL monitoring and evaluation guidance and various related implementation tools to assist officials monitor the implementation of Merida Initiative projects. This guidance draws on GAO's leading practices for monitoring and evaluation, State Department guidance and other sources. This guidance addresses areas GAO highlighted in its report. In addition, State/INL developed training for agreement officer representatives in Mexico on monitoring interagency agreements and international organization letters of agreement. This training includes guidance on establishing regular performance reviews based on implementers' quarterly reports.
U.S. Agency for International Development The USAID Administrator should establish procedures to ensure that monitoring officials for Mérida Initiative projects develop monitoring plans that address risks. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In response to GAO's recommendation, USAID issued a Mission Order entitled, "Project and Activity Design and Implementation." The order applies specifically to the USAID Mission in Mexico, and establishes roles, responsibilities, and procedures for project and activity design, such as those implemented under the Merida Initiative. The Mission Order indicates that Project Appraisal Documents (PAD) should contain a section detailing the risk identified during the project design. The PAD requires a section describing how the mission will manage the risk and possible mitigating actions. The Mission Order also indicates that PADs should be kept current, including by updating to the project's Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning plans as necessary. In addition, risk assessments prepared for each activity should explain how identified risks would be monitored throughout the life of the activity.

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