Ruth Levine is the Program Director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population program; Joseph Asunka is a Program Officer who manages grants that support fiscal transparency and accountability in developing countries.
Where are we on aid and development transparency ten years on? In a recent blog post, Publish What You Fund CEO Gary Forster and Center for Global Development Vice President Owen Barder remind readers of the original vision for more open, accountable, and coordinated aid. They flag important milestones like the creation of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a common, openly-accessible way for governments and other donors to report how and where they spend aid money, and publication of significant amounts of data through it. The “supply” side of the data equation is coming along quite nicely.
Gary and Owen also highlight what many of us are worried about: the “demand” side of the equation. Governments in countries that receive international aid do not systematically use the data to plan. There are few hints that citizens use the information to hold their governments, government contractors, and donors accountable. And even those who might have the greatest capacity and incentives for data use – donors and the aid effectiveness community – do not use the data in a regular way to track progress. In contrast, too often new, one-time data collection efforts are launched to answer specific questions about the level and type of donor spending – questions for which the existing data are perfectly suitable.
As Publish What You Fund and others in the aid transparency community turn their energies toward improving data use, here are six practical ideas we think could speed up progress:
1. Identify and map user needs
The original vision of the IATI standard anticipated that donors, governments, civil society, and citizens would use the data to coordinate, plan, and promote accountability. Rather than assume that quality data would lead to greater use, the community should invest in understanding the data needs of the target users, and how users want to access the information. What will make the IATI data store attractive and usable to the Ugandan Finance Ministry; the budget tracking civil society organization in Cambodia; or the investigative journalist in Mexico City?
2. Eliminate one-off “data calls”
The IATI community should figure out how to convince funding agencies (both headquarters and country offices) to refuse to respond to one-off inquiries that can be answered by going to IATI data. Consultants who specialize in mapping exercises using aid data should be brought together into a “user group” so that they can sell the skill of using IATI data rather than the skill of collecting new data. (Note to foundation peers: this means all of us should desist from funding unnecessary data collection efforts!)
3. Proactively market the data
The aid effectiveness movement and the IATI community need to do more to sell the value of IATI data to target users. A robust data packaging and communication strategy is needed to better advertise the data to potential users. This should build on recent initiatives such as the IATI research challenge for journalists, Publish What You Fund’s research on US foreign assistance, and other ongoing efforts that demonstrate the use of IATI data.
4. Close the feedback loop
To promote use, it is important that this data is meaningful in the lives of people. A good starting point is to include performance-related feedback – for instance, if donors provide funds to build a community school in Senegal, could IATI provide a platform for civil society and citizens to monitor and report progress on the project? How far can we go to see whether IATI can be made relevant to people’s daily lives? We see an opportunity for the IATI community to work with the budget and contract transparency movements to promote the use of IATI data by ordinary citizens for monitoring the delivery of donor-funded projects.
5. Universal Health Coverage (UHC)
As efforts to create Universal Health Coverage pick up speed globally, we urge the aid effectiveness community to tailor data about aid flows to the health sector. Not only is donor support for health the single largest piece of the funding pie, it is also broken up into funding streams linked to specific interventions and diseases – a feature of the funding that makes coordination and alignment with dynamic national priorities extremely difficult. As countries develop holistic plans for delivery and financing of services within a universal health coverage agenda, IATI data can be particularly valuable in understanding the nature of health finance flows. Health is also the sector in which there are frequent one-time, special-purpose data collection exercises, so there’s a big opportunity to shift to using IATI data to respond to queries.
6. Catch them new
A good time to get governments to appreciate and use aid data is when new administrations come into office. The IATI community could take advantage of these moments – which in most cases are known well in advance – and prepare to provide up-to-date information about aid flows to new administrations. Several countries will hold elections in 2019 and the community could pilot this approach in a few of these countries as soon as the elections are finished.
These ideas could go a long way to increase the use of data by government officials, and the organizations and citizens working to hold their government officials accountable for results. With the welcome focus on data use, we should also be prepared to answer: What could we observe over the next three years that would tell us that efforts to get the data used are *not* working? It would be an act of true accountability for the community to state, ex ante what failure would look like. Let us know @joeasunka and @ruthlevine5 if you have ideas about the answer to that question.