Ebola and information: Why donors must publish what they fund

This is an opinion piece by Rupert Simons and Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, originally posted here on the Devex website.

In December 2014, the U.S. government committed over $2 billion to the fight against Ebola: $1.4 billion of that was allocated to the U.S. Agency for International Development and $600 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but only a small fraction of the money spent on fighting Ebola goes to the governments of the countries affected.

The priorities of donors were not always the same as the people of the affected countries or their governments. The United Nations budgeted more to fly aid workers around West Africa than to pay Sierra Leonean health workers — $96.3 million compared with $23.7 million.

Last week, donors met at the United Nations in New York to make commitments of new funds to aid the recovery from the Ebola crisis. Civil society, including Publish What You Fund and the Society for Democratic Initiatives, pushed for an equally vital commitment that aid funds will be transparent and reach those it is meant to reach.

Many people are doing heroic work to fight Ebola — not least the estimated 23,000 Sierra Leoneans working to control the epidemic at its peak six months ago. But their efforts are blighted by poor coordination, with results like having spare beds in one district and a shortage of beds in another. Under normal circumstances, poor coordination leads to wasted resources. In an emergency situation like Ebola, it becomes a matter of life and death.

A lack of transparency is at the root of this problem. When the government of Sierra Leone spends its own money, it has to follow a budget approved by parliament, and keep records so the National Audit Office can track the expenditure. No such requirements exist for money spent by donors or nongovernmental organizations. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs tries to follow the money, but it relies on voluntary reporting, which in an emergency often falls by the wayside.

When aid is not transparent, governments are unable to plan or manage their funds effectively and direct them to areas that most need them. This leads to a shortage of beds or ambulances in one district and surplus in another. Partners working in the country don’t have the information they need to effectively collaborate with each other, or with the government.

In Sierra Leone, labs run by U.S., Chinese and South African technicians all used different forms, sometimes in different languages, which made it harder to get an accurate picture of the number of patients infected every day. And, critically, citizens don’t have the information they need to hold their elected representatives to account. Without having access to the numbers, opposition parliamentarians or civil society groups trying to follow the money struggle to make progress.

The poor information that donors share with decision-makers in Sierra Leone stands in stark contrast to the effort they put into media coverage. Every major donor agency has press relations officers, who arrange for politicians and journalists to visit health facilities and meet Ebola survivors. But civil servants preparing a budget don’t need more video diaries and blog posts. They need data, presented in a common, machine-readable format that they can import to their own system.

Anti-corruption campaigners need to know how much money has been committed, what for and who has the contract to deliver it. Aid workers need to know what their colleagues are doing. In our experience, aid agencies are among the biggest users of their own data.

Transparency is enhanced when donors channel their money through local actors, including government, civil society and the local private sector. When donors use country systems to deliver aid, the parliamentarians and citizens of that country have an incentive to follow the money and make sure it is used wisely. This aligns with the interest of the donors to make sure funds are not diverted. Governments can be overwhelmed in a crisis, and donors often bypass country systems out of a desire to act quickly when needs are acute. But there can be no excuse for failing to share information, including data on aid flows.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative brings together over 300 governments, foundations and NGOs who publish aid information in a common, open format. There is a growing range of online tools that allow this data to be downloaded and analyzed. Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma added his voice to those calling for publication to IATI:

“Transparency and accountability will be critical to the success of these proposals. In Sierra Leone … our accountability watchdog agencies — the Audit Services, Parliament and the ACC have commenced actions on ensuring this. We ask donors to improve their transparency also by publishing what they fund according to the International Aid Transparency Agreement. This will make us more effective and allow donors and our citizens to hold us to account.”

Sierra Leone civil society watchdogs endorse Koroma’s call, but caution that the government must also be transparent about how it spends the funds that are channeled through government systems. Civil society actors are the only ones who can hold both government and donors accountable, and government and donors must recognize and respect that role.

Sierra Leonean citizens, quite rightly, demanded that their government account for how it spends their money. It is time to demand the same of aid donors, agencies and NGOs, whose budgets are often greater but who are much less accountable.

We therefore call on everyone in the development community:

If you produce data, publish it.
If you have data, use it.
If you don’t have data, demand it.

About the authors
Rupert Simons
RupertRupert Simons joined Publish What You Fund as CEO in January 2015. He is responsible for strategy and overall management of the organization, and reports to the Chair and the Board of Trustees. He previously worked for the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, where he was a country head. He has worked with Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to improve the management of her priority projects, helped set up the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency and a Situation Room for Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Center.
Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai
EmmanuelEmmanuel Saffa Abdulai is a human rights lawyer in Sierra Leone. He is the founder and executive director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that aims to promote, protect, and enhance democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Abdulai served as a legal adviser on international humanitarian law for the International Criminal Tribunal and was chairman of Sierra Leone Freedom of Information, a network of civil society organizations working on access to information law.

Katie Welford

Katie is the Communications Officer at Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at katie@publishwhatyoufund.org.
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