Over 40 governments, along with UN organizations and the World Bank, have committed to a common standard and time schedule for publishing aid information under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). There are high expectations for this initiative. The ultimate objective is to increase the effectiveness of donor assistance, making aid work for those whom we are trying to help and contributing to accelerated development outcomes on the ground. IATI is good news for increased accountability, can help improve coordination, and provides a space for engaging donors, communities, governments and the general public in a broader development dialogue.
Secretary of State Clinton signed on behalf of the US Government on November 2011. While US engagement has been very welcomed, US Government performance in terms of actually executing IATI has left much to be desired. Publish What You Fund, an organization helping to ensure governments are held to their initial aid transparency commitments, ranked only one out of six agencies (MCC) in the ‘fair’ category in terms of execution. Recently, organizations like Oxfam and ONE have rightly questioned the US Government’s commitment and progress, and exhorted the Obama administration to make full compliance with the IATI standard a priority.
But with all the attention focused on how USG is performing, what are INGOs doing about IATI? After all, governments can only open access to the data they have. Official development assistance is an increasingly smaller proportion of the entire aid flows, so having INGOs — particularly, and at the very least, the largest global INGOs — also committed to this process is vital to the success of the Initiative.
What are INGO’s doing about IATI? The answer is: not much.
Very few INGOs have committed to publishing their information to the IATI standard. INGOs that have complied are doing so primarily because a donor is requiring it. For example, DfID, the UK foreign aid agency, has such a requirement and, as a result, the UK has the largest number of INGOs in compliance. The US Government has not imposed this requirement on US-based INGOs and it is not likely to do so in the future. It is therefore not surprising that US-based INGO have not shown much interest in IATI.
This is a lost opportunity for everyone. Accountability and transparency are as relevant to the private and the non-profit side of development assistance as they are to the public side.
At Plan International, an INGO with offices in almost 70 countries, it is not surprising that the part of our organization making the fastest strides in this area is our office in the United Kingdom. As an important recipient of DfID money, they were instructed to do so. In the US, though Plan International USA is not a major recipient of USG funding, we believe that making the investment to comply with IATI reporting format and timelines is good development practice; we are thus committed to publishing to IATI in the next year. How can we effectively preach transparency and increased accountability to our recipient communities and to the governments with which we are working yet not commit to something as eminently commonsensical to uniform formats, comparable data sets and systematic reporting frequencies?
We are not “Pollyannaish” about the task. Like all INGOs pondering whether and how to comply with IATI, we have many concerns, including the costs of complying and what it will do to our overhead (and therefore to something like our Charity Navigator) rating. We have established an internal project code so we can better capture, track and understand the costs involved in this initiative. And we are evaluating where we draw the line in terms of the size of the projects on which we should be reporting, balancing costs with the desire to maximize disclosure (it is also worth remembering that rating agencies themselves are placing increasing emphasis on transparent reporting, so rating concerns may ultimately support a move towards greater IATI compliance).
As we have moved forward, we have had many issues to address, including privacy concerns, since a fair bit of Plan’s internal documentation was not written with the idea that it would one day be shared with the public. Publishing some information may pose security risks for minority or political groups being supported. These situations have been contemplated by IATI already, however, and there are valid exemptions for sensitive data. We have also learned that there are many resources to help INGOs navigate the IATI compliance waters. These resources are not well known to US INGOs, and need to be better publicized. Plan in the US, of course, is also benefiting from the research and hard work our UK office has done to comply with DfID’s mandate, allowing us to start off on a strong foundation of organizational experience.
I am convinced that IATI is not just good development practice but also makes good business sense. At the same time, it is worth remembering that IATI is not the entire solution. IATI is designed to improve upward accountability to donors and taxpayers. It is not designed explicitly to improve accountability to the children and communities with which we are partnering and whom we serve. And, as the ultimate goal is improved aid effectiveness, data must be accompanied by better information about goals, methodologies and approaches. We also need to get better at sharing not just successes but failures within our federation and across all development organizations.
Despite all the shortcomings, IATI is a good start. And as we push the US Government to do better, INGOs need to be pushing themselves to do better as well.
Click here to watch the video on what aid transparency means to Plan USA.