Mismanaged aid: From an empty building to broken systems

The aid transparency movement has helped stakeholders in donor and partner countries to move from asking ‘why does aid transparency matter and to whom?’ to ‘what are the risks when there is limited aid information and who suffers from it?’. Two recent articles explain the need for transparency, coordination and better information management systems to avoid waste in international spending.


The first example is found in a Washington Post article from July 10, 2013, “A brand-new U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. And nobody to use it.” The article explains how a very expensive building in Afghanistan was contracted out to be built, furnished, air conditioned and now it stands empty.

There were several warnings sent from Marine commanders in Afghanistan saying that such a sophisticated structure was not needed, at that time, in that location, particularly as the U.S. was planning to pull out the troops in the near term. It is difficult to read this article and not feel frustration both from the commanders’ unheard pleas but also from the scale of tax-payers’ money that was misused- $34 million.

Some obvious questions arise – why was this information not shared as it was happening with all relevant stakeholders? If the information had been comprehensive, accessible and timely, would better decisions have been made? Why wasn’t the Pentagon able to stop this project? Was the design and contracting of the project done knowing  what was needed on the ground, or was that assessment made too late?

The second example is a report on PEPFAR from the GAO, “Millions Being Treated, but Better Information Management Needed to Further Improve and Expand Treatment.” The report looks closely at the relationship between treatment progress, their sustainability and efficiency, and the timely information shared with partner countries. Two of the main findings are:

  1. More complete and timely cost data could help countries manage costs and plan treatment expansion more effectively; and
  2. More consistent, complete, and timely information on treatment results could enhance the quality of treatment programs, including patient, clinic, and program management.

PEPFAR works with a number of agencies so the information on projects and funding must travel from one system to another, from one agency to another and maintain its integrity and timeliness, as well as its structure and complete message.

The GAO report explains how OGAC allocates appropriated funds to PEPFAR implementing agencies, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). CDC and USAID obligate the majority of PEPFAR funds for HIV treatment, care, and prevention activities through grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts with selected implementing partners, such as U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and partner-country governmental entities and NGOs.[1] All these different actors have a piece in the information puzzle (and the budget cycle), each with a unique role and purpose.

The information therefore should trickle down from the top allowing for the traceability of funds and project information so at the end of the chain, at the recipient level, information is complete and accurate.

Aid information that is not easily accessed and shared in a structured manner presents a significant risk to donors and partner countries. Effective information management from the donor and the recipient is important and the risks of weak information systems or broken systems are high. The GAO found 7 out of 11 evaluations showing weaknesses in record keeping, including incomplete or inaccurate data on the consumption of ARV drugs. These weaknesses can increase the risks of drug shortages, waste, and loss of inventory. In one of the countries included in the report, an evaluation team identified losses valued at about $265,000.

There is no doubt that in both of these cases, comprehensive aid information, publicly accessible and in a common format, would have been useful. It could have perhaps prevented the misuse or loss of resources, and aid may have been used more effectively if the right people in charge knew what their counterparts were also doing, in real time.

There are some behavior elements needed for this to change: one that pushes donors to proactively publish their aid information in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard, and another for the recipient to incorporate this information into their budget and policy decision making or for the user to know where to turn to after the information becomes public and how to use the data to answer the questions he/she is looking for.

IATI is central to these two articles and it provides at least part of the solution- timely, accessible and comprehensive aid data. The data needs to continue to flow, the quality of it should incrementally increase and third party developers should be encouraged to make useful applications and visualizations for recipients of aid to readily intake the information. We’re not far from seeing what the full picture looks like but progress from donors should be accelerated. The next couple of months present unique opportunities for donors’ to demonstrate progress. The 2013 Aid Transparency Index will be launched in Washington in October, right before the Open Government Partnership conference in London. We’re staying tuned.

[1] Other implementing agencies include the Peace Corps and the Departments of State, Defense, Labor, and Commerce. In addition, other HHS offices and agencies receiving PEPFAR resources include the Office for Global Affairs, the Food and Drug Administration, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Catalina Reyes

Catalina is a Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at catalina.reyes@publishwhatyoufund.org
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