Publish What You Fund gives a cautious welcome to agreement on foreign aid reform, but urges greater transparency so that aid can make a bigger difference

The OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) met this week in Paris to consider reforms to how foreign aid is defined and measured.

The Chair of the DAC, Charlotte Petri-Gornitzka, has been trying to modernise the institution and turn it from a donor club to a development hub. Major donors, meanwhile, are keen to change the definition of aid so as to get more credit for money they spend on hosting refugees, and lending money to the private sector.

The DAC works by consensus, so not all changes were approved. However, DAC members acknowledged that transparency is needed in order for aid to be accountable and build public trust.   They also agreed to work with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which encourages donors to publish real-time data to complement the statistics compiled by the DAC.

Reacting to the meeting communique, Publish What You Fund’s CEO, Rupert Simons, said:

“The DAC took some steps in the right direction this week. We’re pleased to see civil society voices finally represented in the discussion, and welcome DAC members’ renewed commitment to transparency. It is now time for donors and the DAC itself to put this commitment into practice.”

Transparency is critical because too much global aid and development activity still happens in the shadows. This is an acute problem in areas where spending is growing, like security assistance and aid to the private sector. There are lots of arguments about when and how to count this spending as aid. They will never be resolved or held to account unless donors make publicly available what they fund.

The OECD-DAC also needs to be more transparent itself. It is high time, for example, to declassify DAC documents and make DAC peer reviews open and accessible to everyone. At the moment you need to register or pay to download a peer review. The DAC should also produce and maintain an online, parseable codelist so that donors can code their data correctly. Publish What You Fund and Open Knowledge created one as an interim measure, but as the standard-setter, the DAC should really be responsible for it.

Transparency alone won’t build public trust in development, but it’s an essential first step. As long as aid is opaque, donors may be tempted to fiddle the figures and the public will think they must have something to hide.