COVID-19: Better USAID Documentation and More-Frequent Reporting Could Enhance Monitoring of Humanitarian Efforts
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress appropriated $908 million of supplemental funding to the State Department and USAID for international humanitarian assistance in FY 2020.
Both agencies began communicating with organizations remotely to oversee how these funds are spent. For instance, they have relied on video conferences and online reports (instead of in-person site visits) to ensure these funds are being spent effectively.
However, USAID did not consistently document how it is overseeing these funds. We recommended that USAID better communicate expectations for documenting oversight to its staff.
Socially Distanced Cash Distribution in South Sudan
What GAO Found
The Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) shifted to remote monitoring of their humanitarian assistance awards in response to COVID-19, but USAID documented field-level oversight inconsistently. State and USAID officials reported using technology, such as video conferencing, to communicate with agency staff and with organizations implementing the awards but generally ceased in-person meetings as well as site visits by headquarters-based staff. State used a standardized template to consistently document oversight of two nongovernmental organization (NGO) awards GAO reviewed. However, USAID did not consistently document field-level oversight of five NGO awards GAO reviewed. USAID staff were either unaware of the relevant guidance on field-level oversight or believed it was no longer in effect. Communicating to staff the expectations for documentation would help USAID preserve institutional knowledge and ensure management has information needed to make programming decisions.
USAID required implementers using fiscal year 2020 COVID-19 supplemental funds to submit monthly reports, which contributed to lessons learned and informed headquarters staff. In March 2021, USAID reverted to semiannual reporting for new awards but did not fully assess the trade-offs of doing so. Such an assessment could help USAID weigh competing factors, such as increased risks while monitoring remains curtailed by the pandemic versus the burden placed on implementing organizations by more frequent reporting.
Organizations implementing State and USAID humanitarian assistance awards adapted to COVID-19 chiefly through low-tech remote solutions and faced implementation and monitoring challenges. These adaptations included (1) increased use of social distancing and personal protective equipment (see figure), (2) teleconferences or video conferences instead of in-person meetings, and (3) increased use of remote tools, such as telephone surveys. Implementers faced related procurement, technology, and logistics challenges, which delayed program implementation.
Masked and Socially Distanced Humanitarian Assistance Training in Honduras
Why GAO Did This Study
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new humanitarian needs and exacerbated existing vulnerabilities around the world. In response to the pandemic, Congress appropriated and State and USAID obligated $908 million in supplemental funding in fiscal year 2020 for international humanitarian assistance activities.
The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor the federal government's efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines how State and USAID adapted their monitoring of humanitarian assistance activities supported by COVID-19 supplemental funding. This report also describes how implementing organizations adapted their projects to the COVID-19 context and the challenges they faced.
GAO reviewed State and USAID planning, funding, and guidance documents and interviewed officials; obtained data on all humanitarian assistance awards funded from COVID-19 fiscal year 2020 supplemental appropriations. GAO also reviewed relevant documents for a nongeneralizable sample of 12 awards (seven to NGOs, five to public international organizations), selected on the basis of factors such as geographic representation and type of implementer.
GAO recommends USAID better communicate expectations for documentation of field-level oversight, and assess the tradeoffs of more-frequent reporting. USAID concurred with the recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|U.S. Agency for International Development||The USAID Administrator should ensure that BHA clearly communicates to staff the expectations for documentation of field-level oversight, such as site visits, in each award file, such as by educating staff about legacy guidance or issuing new BHA guidance. (Recommendation 1)||
USAID concurred with this recommendation, and in response, BHA developed new Internal Site Visit Guidance to more clearly communicate the Agency's expectations for documentation of field-level oversight activities. Specifically, it provides guidance on items such as the information that should be documented from a site visit, an optional template for staff to use, and expectations on where site visit documents should be filed. The Managing Director of BHA shared this new guidance with all Bureau staff by email, and BHA also posted this revised guidance on its Monitoring and Evaluation Team intranet site for staff to reference at any time. As a result, BHA staff have a better understanding of the relevant guidance on field-level oversight, which will aid in making programmatic decisions.
|U.S. Agency for International Development||The USAID Administrator should ensure that BHA assesses the costs and benefits of requiring more-frequent reporting from implementers in contexts where normal operations and monitoring are curtailed. (Recommendation 2)||
USAID concurred with GAO's recommendation, and in response, BHA developed a memorandum describing the various factors staff should take into consideration before requiring additional reporting from partners. For example, staff should consider costs such as additional compliance with other Agency policies and/or U.S. law and the burden on implementing partners working in certain humanitarian contexts. Staff also should consider certain benefits such as satisfying a U.S government demand for data and the value added from additional reporting in contexts that differ from the typical BHA response. As a result of this memo, USAID is better positioned to make strategic choices on when to require more-frequent reporting from implementers.