More US international aid data released – now what? A user’s perspective

Guest post by Jennifer Lentfer, Oxfam America – originally posted here.

Three US government agencies released loads of data on their foreign aid programs last month. So what happens when a Parliamentarian or a Minister of a country receiving US development assistance wants to use that information?

Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah, co-founder and executive director of Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa and former Ghanaian Minister and Parliamentarian

Yesterday I sat down with the Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah, a former government minister in Ghana, to find out. Kan-Dapaah is not only a former cabinet minister and chair of the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament of Ghana, he began his career as a chartered accountant. As he explored foreignassistance.gov, examining USAID’s projects in Ghana in 2013, he shared his observations and perspectives.

“They probably don’t appreciate how important this is,” Kan-Dapaah commented as we began. “These new data that are coming out [from USAID, MCC, and the Treasury Department] is what we need to bring financial accountability to the government. Finding out that $10 million USD was allocated for a bridge over a certain river is a very powerful tool.”

As someone who served as a member of Parliament in Ghana for 16 years, the first thing that Kan-Dapaah said would be helpful is information on the localities of the funded aid projects on the website. The listing of projects by sector and then by payment to implementing partners is a start, but he says, “I would want to know what aid money is flowing into my constituency, and I can imagine other members would too.”

Currently Kan-Dapaah would need to see the contracts and project plans that are not currently on the website to know what regions, districts, and/or communities are to be reached by the USAID in Ghana. Kan-Dapaah would also like to see direct outreach by the US government to Parliamentarians.

“It’s important for legislators to be aware that this data is available and how it can be used,” he said. “This is part of their oversight role and is what’s needed to trigger checks and balances.”

Kan-Dapaah examines new aid data out on Ghana via foreignassistance.gov.

Another missing but necessary level of detail was also evident as the chartered accountant wanted to know why the spent amount in the first three quarters, $93 million USD, was so different from the $72 million USD obligated during the period. The explanation was not readily apparent from the 172 financial transactions listed and the gaps in entries that appeared.

“An audit is not yet possible with this,” Kan-Dapaah noted. “Without ‘lower level’ transactions, if we want to get to the level of performance audit, this cannot help us. Transparency without an accounting system means [data] cannot be put in context. What is also needed is percentage completion data.”

Kan-Dapaah had shared earlier in the day that the USAID’s new focus on country systems are right on, but that supporting the civil society watchdog function alongside these efforts was key. As Kan-Dapaah scrolled through the listing, however, just a glance at the vendor names shows how little US assistance is going directly to the Ghanaian government and to Ghanaian civil society.

“So many contractors and international NGOs,” he muttered. Abt Associates, the Academy of Educational Development, Research Triangle Institute, US universities—the list goes on and on save some small amounts for direct administrative costs of USAID mission business and the exception of a few education, social services, and infrastructure projects.

“And who knows how these suppliers were selected?” Kan-Dapaah wondered.

Hearing from the users of data, the people who must plan within government and those who must hold governments to account, is key to understanding how far the US still has to go to share usable data on our aid programs.

A screen shot of some of the Ghana data on foreignassistance.gov.

A screen shot from foreignassistance.gov.

So what was Kan-Dapaah’s final thoughts on the available information on US development assistance to Ghana?

“It’s pretty scanty. I’d like to see the US err on the side of giving more information, than less. We need this data for a better understanding of the aid flows into Ghana, so that we can use it to provide more scrutiny of our government,” he said.

Official development assistance received makes up 21.5 percent of Ghana’s central government expenditure (2011 World Bank figures). Kan-Dapaah recently co-founded a non-partisan think tank, called Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa. The organization’s aim is to bring pressure to bear on the development of efficient and effective public sector financial management systems for all types of government revenue in Africa, including profits from oil and mining in Kan-Dapaah’s home country of Ghana.

“At the end of the day, our democracy, which we fought hard for, will be in trouble unless the people believe that their government is taking care of the money,” said Kan-Dapaah.

“The raw material that I need to do my work is the right information.”

 

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Jennifer Lentfer is Oxfam America’s Senior Writer on Aid Effectiveness. Lentfer has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade. As the creator of how-matters.org, she was named one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter” in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @intldogooder.

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