Ten years ago, when the International Aid transparency Initiative and Publish What You Fund were established, detailed information on development aid remained scarce. If you wanted to find out how much aid was going to Kenya, to whom and for what, you would need high bandwidth access to the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System (CRS) and the ability to decipher the complex accounting jargon of elaborate spreadsheets. Even then, only highly aggregated data was available. Project documents, which might or might not contain information on project objectives, subnational location of activities, and implementing partners, could only be obtained in hard-copy for a fee through a few select donors’ public information centers. Borrower governments themselves had scant knowledge of where the aid was in their country.
As one Malawian Ministry of Finance deputy told me in 2010:
“We don’t really know where the aid is in our country, what [it] is doing, and who is doing it. How can we plan to properly spend government money to build schools, hire doctors, or provide services when we don’t know if our donor partners are already doing this?”
Today we live in a very different world. While challenges persist, we have witnessed a sea change in donor transparency policies and the proliferation of donor dashboards (see, e.g. here, here, here and here), aid tracking initiatives beyond the OECD CRS (e.g, IATI Registry, AidData and Development Initiatives Development Data Hub) and partner country aid information management systems supported by entities such as Development Gateway. In large part, this is due to the tremendous efforts of an active and well-mobilized group of international advocates who have tirelessly fought for open data in development.
The release of the 2018 Aid Transparency Index this June is thus a bespoke moment not only to reflect on the tremendous progress of the international aid transparency movement, but also to specifically acknowledge the remarkable work of Publish What You Fund. Despite its relatively small size and material power – a staff of less than 10 and a 2017 budget of around £600,000 – Publish What You Fund punches well beyond its weight. How does it wield the Index to influence the norms and behavior of major aid donors around the world?
Dan Honig (Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies) and I recently conducted an evaluation of the Aid Transparency Index as part of a broader set of studies on the influence and impact of global performance indices. You can read the paper here.
Using statistical analysis and evidence from open-ended interviews with 465 aid stakeholders in seven countries, we find that the Index has attained and exercised significant symbolic and normative power over donors by defining clear indicators and benchmarks for donor transparency. Its authority derives from its independence and its process of working with donors and external reviewers to construct and validate its annual ratings and rankings. The Index catalyzes change by publicly comparing and donors and invoking peer status concerns.
It turns out that donors do care quite a bit about their reputations.
At the same time, we find that the Index does not impact donors’ transparency practices evenly. Not surprisingly, agencies that have aid distribution as their primary operational mandate (e.g. USAID) are much more likely to be responsive to it than donors for whom the provision of official development assistance is secondary to their core mandate (e.g. the US Department of Defense).
When agencies are responsive to the Index, it is because of its influence on the agencies’ policy elites who are in positions to champion transparency goals and shift policies and resources towards improved reporting. Critically, we find that these elites are not primarily concerned with their Index performance because of perceived material payoffs. Rather, elites worry about their peer status within the aid community and are susceptible to socialization around new norms. Naming and shaming works! Moreover, the very process of being closely monitored and regularly interacting with the Publish What You Fund team produces inter- and intra-organizational learning and norm diffusion, and professionalizes aid staff and management around the Index’s standards. Secondarily, we also find that the Index enhances domestic political pressure by equipping transparency reform proponents (particularly those with some material power over aid agencies, such as appropriations committees) with critical information and clear standards to guide policy change.
So this month we say to Publish What You Fund: happy birthday, and job well done in making global aid transparency a reality.