Using data to save lives

This is a guest post from Erin Hohlfelder & Joe Kraus, the ONE Campaign (originally posted on the ONE blog here)

Keeping track of financial information isn’t most people’s idea of a fun time. Perhaps that explains why people enjoy making jokes about accounting (“It’s accrual world.” or Why did the accountant cross the road? To bore the people on the other side.”).

But when we’re talking about foreign assistance, keeping track of where money goes is critically important. Being able to see how much money donors are contributing to various countries and projects enables citizens to press their governments to use that money effectively. It enables other donors to see what others have already spent and identify and fill remaining gaps.

In short, aid transparency helps ensure that every single aid dollar is used to save or improve lives.

That’s why ONE works closely with groups like Publish What You Fund, Oxfam and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) to press the US government (and others) to be transparent about the money it provides to developing countries.

So just how is our government doing? A recent event to launch Publish What You Fund’s 2015 US Aid Transparency Review – a mid-year assessment of US agencies’ performance on aid transparency – provided an opportunity to hear about the progress various US agencies are making to track their foreign assistance dollars.

To date, there has been uneven progress across US agencies, with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) being the head of the class, USAID, PEPFAR and the State Department making recent improvements, and the Treasury Department and the Department of Defense lagging behind, according to Publish What You Fund’s analysis.

And how did the agencies react to the report’s findings?  Read what their representatives had to say in their own words at the event (along with some added context from us, in italics).

“No one wakes up saying ‘I want to be #3’!” – Beth Tritter, Vice President, Department of Policy and Evaluation, MCC

In 2013, MCC was ranked #1 in the Aid Transparency Index, and slipped to #3 in 2014. However, MCC remains a “trail-blazer” relative to other efforts (especially with respect to gender-disaggregated data) and is committed to doing even better, planning to publish sub-national aid data to IATI standards by the end of 2015.

“I respect a pitcher who can bring the heat” – Larry McDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Technical Assistance Policy, Department of the Treasury

Mr. McDonald seemed to appreciate the event’s spirited debate, and stressed that the Treasury Department had made improvements in its aid reporting and pledged that “we are going to do better.”

“Transparency is something we take very seriously at the State Department.” – Hari Sastry, Director, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, State Department

The State Department made modest progress according to Publish What You Fund’s analysis, and the agency is undertaking a review of its systems to map out the challenges and work toward solutions.

But US agencies’ willingness to be transparent makes no impact in a vacuum—it’s the real-world application of transparent data that can make a difference for development partners on the ground.  The event’s final panelist, Emmanuel Abdulai—the Executive Director of Society for Democratic Initiatives in Sierra Leone—really helped bring things to life, describing what transparency (or lack thereof) means for him and colleagues. “During the Ebola crisis, lack of information led to aid duplication. The government [of Sierra Leone] didn’t know who was doing what and where,” he said.

Rupert Simons, the CEO of Publish What You Fund, underscored Emmanuel’s point:  “When working on Ebola, people couldn’t keep track of where ambulances were or who was responsible for taking care of them.” As ONE recently highlighted, the lack of donor transparency during the Ebola crisis has been frustratingly similar to what happened following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

All of the US agencies recommitted to working with Publish What You Fund and partners to improve their scores and their overall transparency. But what really matters, at the end of the day, is how well that is translated from numbers on a page to usable data in the field that can power the work of partners like Emmanuel. At ONE, we look forward to working with governments to make sure that data is helping generate results on-the-ground.

Joe Kraus is ONE’s Senior Policy Manager for Transparency and Accountability
Erin Hohlfelder is ONE’s Policy Director for Global Health

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