The lessons are there: the U.S. must now act on aid transparency

Written by our U.S. team members, Sally Paxton and Catalina Reyes

On February 6 Brookings and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) hosted an event to present the MCC Principles into Practice Report. The event was also an opportunity to hear from leading donors on the implementation of their aid transparency commitments and more specifically to IATI.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands (MinBuZa) and the World Bank shared their lessons learned on opening up aid data. The focus of their presentations was on the limitations and enablers of publishing aid information and the specifics on what it takes to become a more transparent donor organization.

Publish What You Fund was at this event – here are some of our takeaways:

  1. Don’t assume the cost of getting the data ready for publishing to IATI is high. For example, John Adams, Head of the Business Innovation Team, said that DFID (one of the top publishers in our Index spent about $200,000 to publish to IATI. Theo van de Sande, Min BuZa, echoed these cost figures. While this may not represent the cost to the U.S. – it has more systems to address – we should not start with the assumption that the cost is prohibitive. And we should also consider the benefits of good quality information, including vastly improved data available for management purposes. State and USAID have started the process of addressing the how and how much for publishing to IATI – we encourage them to look to the lessons learned from these top performers.
  2. Consider the freebies. Much of the development work around transparency and open data is open sourced. The U.S should take full advantage of this. There are important offers that U.S. agencies should seriously consider. During the Brookings event, for example, DFID offered to share their code for extracting data from their internal database systems and publishing that data to IATI. State, USAID – and the U.S. taxpayer — could potentially benefit from this offer. It is worth a try!
  3. Political will is a necessity. It’s not enough to issue a policy mandate or a statement from the top – to succeed, such efforts need continued, high level political buy-in and participation by both policy and technical leaders. MCC’s approach is a clear example of putting together the right team with the right leaders. For other U.S. agencies, getting this leadership and team in place is a fundamental step.
  4. Embrace technology and innovation and let it work for you. It is not a coincidence that the most transparent donors are also those pioneering data portals and visualizations. The first step is high quality raw data. With that, the developers can take over. The World Bank, for example, is working on mapping aid information as part of the Open Aid Partnership, which now includes countries like Malawi and Bolivia. DFID and the Netherlands have open source and open code portals which present their data in a more user friendly way. MinBuZa has also led the way on using and reusing data. For example, one data set can go to both the OECD DAC and to the IATI Registry. Publish once, use often.
  5. Slice it and dice it. Not all data will be used by the same people but good raw data can be used by most. Some users will only want top level numbers while others will be looking for specific transactions in health in a rural area of Kenya. Understanding these differences helps. DFID estimates that about 30-50% of users of their UK Development Tracker are from within the Department. John Adams says he loves getting a phone call from a DFID employee asking them to correct a number on the site. Such ownership naturally leads to better quality and better use. MCC knows that their aid data is important for their in country partners or the MCAs, so they are talking to them about how they too can use the data for their own management purposes. Understand your supply and demand and then work toward that end.
  6. Consult with others. U.S. agencies are not alone when they encounter limitations and challenges to open up their aid. The good news is that others have been through similar situations. Because we work across the spectrum of donors globally, we hear these same issues from different publishers. For example, problems with publishing project documents and results information are fairly similar across donors. The U.S. agencies should tap into existing resources – including similarly situated donors, the IATI Secretariat, and Publish What You Fund. Consulting with others can help create best practice and make these efforts more sustainable.

Kudos to MCC for putting their lessons learned together. And thanks to Brookings and MFAN for creating the opportunity to hear from leaders on aid transparency about their plans and how they got there. We look forward to engaging with these and others donors to make sure the job is done.

We know 2015 is a critical year and it is time to rev up those engines to fully deliver on aid transparency.

Sally Paxton

Sally is the U.S. Representative for Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at sally.paxton@publishwhatyoufund.org.
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