Saudi Arabia “is the number one donor for aid and development in Yemen”, according to Dr Abdullah al-Rabeeah, who runs the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KS Relief). “We’re here to help.”

What the impact of Saudi’s aid is, however, we can’t really know. There’s no doubt the country has a sizeable aid budget but Saudi Arabia is not transparent when it comes to how it is spent.

A growing share of global aid comes from countries that are not members of the OECD. China is the largest of these ‘emerging donors’, but Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are not far behind: together, they report between $15 and 20 billion of aid to the OECD each year, putting them on a par with Germany or the UK. Kuwait and Qatar regularly pledge large amounts at Syrian donor conferences, and the New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have promised to shake up their sectors.

Unfortunately, the transparency of these emerging donors has lagged behind their budgets. Why does this matter? Not just because transparency has been agreed as an international principle, though it has, but because publishing comprehensive, timely and comparable information on aid and development finance is essential to making development more effective. This is true whether we are talking about north-south aid, south-south cooperation or any other kind of international assistance.

Experience from Liberia

In 2013, I was working as an advisor to the Government of Liberia. One of my tasks was to help the government identify sources of funding for essential infrastructure projects. After securing funding from the EU Commission, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, the government started approaching donors from China and the Middle East.

China was easy to talk to: since President Hu Jintao’s visit to Liberia in 2008, President Sirleaf and senior ministers had made several visits to Beijing, and the Chinese embassy had funded a stadium, technical college and university campus in Monrovia.

The Middle Eastern donors were harder to reach. The President and Minister of Finance visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE with a view to raising funds for a road to the north of the country. However, it was difficult to follow up: none of the donors had country offices in Liberia, and they provided little information about the sorts of projects they funded, the terms of their lending or how to approach them. Senior officials, including the Minister of Finance and Minister of Public Works, continued chasing them until the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15 forced them to focus on more immediate priorities.

This year, we considered including more emerging donors in the Aid Transparency Index, so as to reflect the growing diversity of aid and development finance. We had already included China and the United Arab Emirates in the 2016 report, but they scored poorly, as we were not able to find any current data on their activities.

So where are the numbers?

For the 2018 Index, however, we couldn’t even work out if other emerging donors and development banks met our criteria. According to the OECD, there are two countries, beside China and the UAE, that spend at least $1 billion per year on aid and development finance, namely Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, the Index looks at individual agencies, rather than countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, provides assistance through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Fund for Economic Development and KS Relief amongst others, without a breakdown of what is spent by each.

We also looked at multilateral institutions, including the Islamic Development Bank (based in Jeddah), the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (based in Kuwait) and the OPEC Fund for International Development (based in Vienna). It was a similar story. For example, none publish data to the IATI Registry, the biggest source of information on aid and development finance. Their official websites contain little detail. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank publishes documents on the projects they approve but as they do not include a disbursement schedule, we were unable to work out how much this adds up to per year.

In the absence of official data sets, we are left with two sources of information: occasional reports by organisations like the UNDP and databases prepared by third parties such as aiddata. However, these are not systematic, and often rely on third-party sources such as media reports, which may themselves be inaccurate. Moreover, while these databases are free to access, they are primarily used by academic researchers, and rarely contain the timely, comprehensive or forward-looking data that policymakers need.

A challenge for Somalia

For now, therefore, government officials and activists in partner countries still need to cultivate relationships with donors if they want to know everyone that is investing in their country, attract new sources of funding, or find out where the money is going. In some countries, such as Liberia, this requires a lot of senior government time, but in principle can be done. In others, it may be harder. Somalia’s Aid Coordination Unit conducts an annual mapping exercise of where aid money is going. The 2017 report contained data from 45 organisations accounting for over 80% of aid and development finance. However, it also listed nine organisations that did not provide any information. With the exception of one French agency, they were all emerging donors, the majority from the Middle East.

This week, the United Nations Development Cooperation Forum is meeting in Buenos Aires to consider how south-south and triangular cooperation can meet the Sustainable Development Goals. We hope that the countries gathered will reiterate their shared commitment to transparency, as expressed in Busan, in Addis Ababa and most recently in Nairobi, and take practical steps to improve it.

In the meantime, Publish What You Fund will continue to research, and try to engage with, emerging donors to improve the quality of their data. If you have any suggestions for who we should be talking to, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.