A Future Strategy for Aid Transparency
By Giles Bolton, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Publish What You Fund, and Gary Forster, Chief Executive Officer, Publish What You Fund
“We have found a lack of information from the government in their response. The databases we are looking at don’t match. International donors don’t always have transparency and accountability built into their processes. They don’t inform us where the money is going or what they are doing with it.”
Paola Palacios of Transparencia Mexicana
In the first part of this two part blog series we looked back at the origins of the aid and development transparency movement. We reflected on the original vision, and the journey to date, including the successes achieved along the way and the work still to be done. Here, we’ll present our new strategy with an explanation of what it means in practise.
Getting aid right
Aid is mostly funded, ultimately, through taxes in wealthier countries. So it has many of the same characteristics as conventional public spending. This includes the strength that, with good policy-making, it can be targeted directly to areas of greatest need and impact. And the weakness that, without straightforward measures of effectiveness, it can struggle for efficiency.
But aid has one other weakness that other forms of public sector spending do not. When people’s taxes are spent on education, healthcare and many other issues in their own country, the government is generally held reasonably accountable for the quality and efficiency of those services – by voters, media and civil society. The key is that the same people who pay for the service are the beneficiaries of it, and won’t suffer long (or at least quietly) for poor outcomes.
Aid is different. The people who pay for it often have no visibility of what happens to it. And the people who are supposed to benefit from it have almost no levers with which to influence what or how it is delivered, or how effective it is. Aid is, it turns out, the hardest public service to get right. And that’s before you get to the challenges within developing countries of the numerous donors you need to manage and the limited resource you have to do that with.
Making aid transparent
Publish What You Fund was created, in part, to address this problem. If aid can be made truly transparent, policy-makers in developing countries from government and civil society can work to manage it coherently with other forms of aid and public spending. Furthermore, citizens and their representatives can start to hold that aid to account.
Over the last ten years, Publish What You Fund has firmly established the principle that aid and development spending must be transparent, supporting a significant and growing number of donors to be transparent, and creating the Aid Transparency Index to assess how transparent those donors are.
But this battle is a long way from being won. Now that a huge amount of aid data is available, not enough of it is actually being used by policy-makers; and many more donors and other types of funders have emerged who need to go on the same journey of transparency, while many established donors still need to improve.
Responding to the challenge: the new strategy
Our new three-year strategy responds to these problems in three ways: we will demonstrate how data can be used effectively to create real change; we will ensure more donors are more transparent; and we will reinforce our efforts to help make the data they provide as useable as possible for key actors in aid-recipient countries.
1. Fulfilling the promise
Our first strategic pillar is about collaborating to ensure that data is used to contribute to improved development outcomes and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Transparency is a necessary foundation for better development outcomes, but until aid and development information is put to use by donors, government representatives and civil society to make aid more effective and accountable, the original promise of the aid and development transparency movement will remain unfulfilled.
We will focus on the use of aid and development data in a number of settings and countries in a way that contributes to greater accountability and more informed decision-making.
For example, our current US Foreign Assistance project, which examines the impact of proposed budget cuts, combines a deep-dive into aid flow data with research in partner countries (Nicaragua, Cambodia, Liberia and Senegal). The findings have been fed into the FY19 congressional budget debates through our strong network of US partners. A key outcome of this type of initiative is that we’re actively demonstrating how better data on foreign assistance can be used to improve decision-making.
2. Opening up new frontiers
Our second strategic pillar focuses on our desire to make all aid and development finance data transparent and available. The donor landscape is changing dramatically, and we must adapt to it. There is an increasingly diverse array of actors, such as development finance institutions (DFIs), private finance and pooled funds.
Jorge A. Matine of the Centre for Public Integrity, a think tank and watchdog organisation in Mozambique, provides a helpful illustration. He told us that the problem of transparency is difficult to solve in Mozambique as there are so many actors involved. There are emerging donors such as China and Cuba who can be secretive about their work. “You will see a lot of buildings with signs saying it’s been built by them, but you can’t trace it.” There are also small donors and the private sector who might provide aid but this could also be through in-kind donations. Jorge says, “This is different to European donors who have the pressure to work together. Even if they don’t actually do it, the pressure is there.”
We plan to work with and encourage donors in at least three new areas to make their aid and development information more transparent. For example, we are currently researching the business models of DFIs to understand where existing transparency measures can apply or where new measures are required.
We also plan to work in close collaboration with humanitarian actors to investigate the user needs of actors on the ground in particular to help improve humanitarian aid delivery.
3. Raising the bar
Our third strategic pillar is about strengthening and extending our research, advocacy and technical expertise to improve the usability of aid and development finance information.
For example, we will build and upgrade tools such as the Aid Transparency Tracker and the Data Quality Tester which allow publishers to test and improve the quality of their data.
We will continue to engage with donors to encourage them to provide more timely, comprehensive and accessible data through the Index data collection process. We need to continue to invest in strengthening the Index methodology to ensure it remains valid in a changing world. It arguably functions as the main feedback mechanism for publishers and through the two stage analysis process, it represents one of the most important data quality improvement mechanisms to date.
We will continue to champion transparency through relevant multilateral fora, including transparency-related initiatives, such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Here we want to support progress but also highlight areas that need improving so that IATI – and the wider aid and development transparency movement – can realise its full potential.
Ready for the challenge
It is an ambitious strategy, and we are ready for the challenge. The Publish What You Fund team is committed and passionate about making aid and development more transparent and effective. We also know that across much of the aid and development landscape there is a genuine desire among all stakeholders to realise the aid transparency dream, whereby aid and development information is fully transparent, available and used for effective decision-making, public accountability and lasting change for all citizens. We will continue the hard work of our predecessors to fulfill the promise of the aid transparency movement.
You can download our three-year strategy here and see a summary here.