GAO released two reports in 2020 examining rule of law (ROL) assistance programs implemented by the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) (GAO-20-393 was published on June 9, 2020, and GAO-21-14 was published on November 9, 2020). Both agencies help foreign countries establish their political and justice sectors, strengthen the rule of law, and address such challenges as terrorism and transnational crime. Strengthening judicial and legal systems in foreign countries is also vital to U.S. national security interests. Unstable states or states with weak rule of law spread security threats and economic insecurity to neighboring countries and undermine the foreign policy interests of the United States.  

GAO reported that State allocated over $2 billion and USAID allocated over $700 million for rule of law assistance in the past five years. Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico received 40% of those funds. Afghanistan became a primary recipient of ROL assistance following the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, promoting the rule of law abroad has been a U.S. government priority for decades. Prior to the 1990s, the U.S. government primarily focused its assistance on activities in Latin America. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government added the former Soviet Union countries to its ROL portfolio.

GAO identified two key issues with ROL programs: (1) lack of interagency coordination; and (2) inconsistent monitoring and evaluation. State and USAID internal guidance highlights the importance of coordination between agencies as they design and implement rule of law assistance. Interagency coordination ensures that they fully leverage available resources and that they do not duplicate or overlap rule of law assistance. However, not all agencies[1] are included in some of the key coordination mechanisms. For example, in three of the four sample countries, State Department officials coordinated rule of law assistance through law enforcement working groups, to which USAID was not invited. 

Monitoring how ROL aid is managed is important for identifying potential issues with projects in a timely manner and knowing when to take corrective action. Program monitoring is also required by the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016 (FFATA) and by the corresponding OMB guidance. GAO concluded that State and USAID “didn’t always identify risks or assess monitoring reports.”

GAO reviewed a sample of 13 State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (State/INL) and six USAID projects in Colombia, Kosovo, Liberia, and the Philippines. GAO found that State/INL failed to develop monitoring plans to address risk in nearly half of its projects. Additionally, both State/INL and USAID did not assess and approve implementing partners’ monitoring reports in more than fifty percent of their projects. In the Philippines, performance evaluation of two State-funded projects concluded that “it was nearly impossible to oversee progress or to determine, through the implementing partners’ reporting to INL, if or to what degree the implementing agencies were achieving desired results, or what challenges they were facing.” This finding is consistent with a State Office of Inspector General (OIG) conclusion that the oversight of foreign assistance continues to be a significant challenge for the agency. An OIG audit reviewing 72 OIG reports issued from FY 2017 through FY 2019 showed that nearly ninety percent of those reports contained findings related to inadequate contract oversight. Following key practices on planning, staffing, and monitoring enables agencies to track project performance, take early corrective action when necessary, and ensure that projects achieve their intended results.

A positive development noted by the GAO report was a deliberate effort by State and USAID to maximize the accuracy, completeness, consistency, and utility of performance indicator data. They undertook a joint initiative to discontinue some indicators that were not useful. As a result of the streamlining effort, the agencies cut the number of standard indicators related to ROL assistance from about 50 in FY14 to nine in FY19.

Both agencies have conducted and disseminated rule of law project evaluations to improve future efforts and make them available to public. USAID conducted 53 ROL performance evaluations (out of 861 total) during FY14-FY18. State/INL conducted 5 ROL performance evaluations (out of 12 total) during the same period. State and USAID post the evaluation results online through Evaluation Registry System and Development Experience Clearinghouse. They also disseminate results via briefings and presentations and track the implementation of evaluation recommendations.

Improving the rule of law in partner countries overseas is a key objective of America’s foreign and national security policies. To ensure that this assistance is provided in an efficient and accountable way, fully leveraging ROL funding and avoiding duplication of efforts, all agencies involved in ROL assistance overseas should coordinate their efforts and develop whole-of-government strategies. Additionally, GAO recommended State/INL establish procedures to ensure that project goals, objectives, and risks are identified in monitoring plans. GAO also recommended State/INL establish and USAID enhance procedures to ensure that monitoring officials assess and approve monitoring reports from implementing partners.

[1] Other agencies, including Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation also provide ROL assistance. E.g., GAO Report “Rule of Law Assistance: DOD Should Assess Workforce Size of Defense Institute of International Legal Studies”, GAO-17-118 (Dec. 14, 2016).