Fair warning: I am asking you to pay attention to something that some people argue is of dwindling relevance. Development assistance—the taxpayer dollars that the U.S. government spends globally to reduce poverty, foster economic growth, and help improve the human condition—makes up a smaller slice of the development finance pie than it once did. Private financial flows now dwarf donor-provided funds, and the strong economic growth in many developing countries means their domestic resources play an increasingly important role, too.

Does this mean we should turn our backs on aid? On the contrary. Aid can play a pivotal role in creating the environment—in terms of reliable infrastructure, skilled workforce, legal frameworks, and good governance that attract all this new private investment. And despite being relatively smaller in terms of dollars, improving how we spend aid can have an outsized impact—to ensure that fewer dollars go farther, that the assistance we do offer is worthy of U.S. leadership on the global stage, and that it helps set a standard for global engagement by all actors, old and new.

How we design, allocate and implement development assistance is precisely the question that the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) is tackling. MFAN (which the Hewlett Foundation has supported since 2008) is a coalition of research, grassroots, implementing, and advocacy organizations pushing for more effective U.S. development assistance, originally formed in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections to get development issues on the political radar screen. It re-emerged last week in version 2.0. Its new reform agenda focuses on two fundamental principles to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective: accountability, through increased transparency, evaluation, and learning; and country ownership of the priorities, resources, and implementation of development investments. 

Why getting the “how” of development assistance right still matters. If the world’s biggest bilateral donor puts partner country priorities at the top of the agenda, invites their citizens to the table, and opens its books about how much it spends and what it does (or doesn’t) achieve, this sets a standard by which other actors, including partner countries themselves and private investors, are held to account. It allows the U.S. to lead by example and by conviction on the global stage. It helps raise the bar on the kinds of engagement and accountability citizens come to expect and demand of their own governments and of global partners.

Why now. The principles of accountability and country ownership are not new. Why has MFAN chosen now to bring these fundamental principles back into the spotlight? The last five years have brought an increasing supply of rigorous evaluations that test long-held assumptions about traditional development interventions, a major push on open data and aid transparency, and an increasingly frank discussion about the causes of and lessons from failure. In this context, “accountability” takes on a whole new meaning, with vastly more information and data in the hands of citizens, advocates, and governments. Likewise, the notion of “country ownership” gets much more sophisticated when technology enables citizen participation and feedback in ways unthinkable just five years ago. Finally, the concepts of accountability and ownership have been mainly applied to development assistance in stable, democratic countries; but they are largely absent in fragile environments. With poverty (and U.S. assistance) increasingly concentrated in these fragile environments, it is even more critical that we push ourselves to apply these pillars of effectiveness in those places.

There’s a window of opportunity to consider, as well—both at home and globally. The Obama administration, which has in fits and spurts embodied these principles, has less than three years to solidify the gains it has made so far—to embed these basic principles into the DNA of how the U.S. engages on development. Meanwhile, the U.S. government will be at the negotiating table next year to establish the next set of global development goals, the so-called post-2015 goals. What these goals are, and how they are set, should absolutely align with the principles of ownership and accountability, and the U.S. is an important player in making sure they do.

What to watch for. My eyes will be on three things as MFAN pushes this policy platform over the next few years.

First, what do the U.S. Administration and Congress do? MFAN’s policy paper calls for specific and high-profile actions, like U.S. compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and reducing the number of Congressional earmarks and Presidential directives that make U.S. assistance more about what Americans want than what poor countries need. But we should be watching behind the scenes too, to monitor how the Administration’s initiatives (things like Power Africa and USAID’s Development Lab) embody the principles of accountability and ownership, and the degree to which agencies live up to their own policies for local solutions, evaluation, or transparency.  For real impact, these principles need to be embedded in how agencies do all their business.

Second, what does the U.S. development community do? The government is not the only one that bears responsibility to make aid more effective. The broader community, including organizations that contract with the U.S. government to implement development programs, have to walk the talk too. If they advocate for more country ownership, they must also make room for partner country priorities, citizens, and businesses in their own work. If they advocate for greater evaluation and transparency by the U.S. government, they must bring these practices in-house as well.

Finally, what does MFAN do? Ambitious goals like shaping how the U.S. government engages with country partners and on the global stage require a sophisticated campaign  founded on solid research and analysis—one that taps into the sensibilities of grassroots coalitions, and leverages the skills of seasoned policy advocates. No one organization holds all this capacity. But across its diverse membership, the MFAN network does. There’s real potential for this network of organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Let’s help them make it happen.