In the third of our 2020 Aid Transparency Index launch blogs, Publish What You Fund’s Chair, Paul Lenz, looks back to where we’ve come from and points to where we now need to go.
In October 2011, Publish What You Fund released its first, pilot, Aid Transparency Index. Of the 58 organisations reviewed none achieved a “good” rating (achieving an average score of 80% or above). 18 organisations were “fair” or “moderate” (40%-79%) but the vast majority were “poor” or “very poor”. Unsurprisingly, we concluded:
“The key finding of this report is that aid is simply not transparent enough. Despite the fact that donors have promised to make their aid more transparent, the majority of them are still not publishing information systematically or in accessible formats. Across some of the largest and most established aid donors, timely, project-level information is patchy, of inconsistent quality and – crucially – hard to compare from one aid agency to another.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and the picture is very different. Although changes in the methodology prevent direct comparison, 45% of organisations were then achieving a rating of “good” or “very good”, and only a handful were “poor” or worse, and our comments reflected this:
“The 2018 Aid Transparency Index shows how these actors are performing individually and as a whole. Overall, the 2018 results show much to be positive about. For example, 93% of Index organisations are now publishing in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard, which means more timely aid and development data is being made openly available than ever before. Around half of the organisations are publishing essential information on their aid and development spending on a monthly basis.”
We will shortly be launching the 2020 Index and we hope to see even more improvement. It is beyond question that over the course of the last nine years the global aid sector has become hugely more transparent.
And as a result aid itself has become more accountable, more effective, and more efficient, right? After all, that was fundamentally the whole point of making these data publicly available in a standardised format?
Hold that thought for a minute…
In 1913 Justice Louis Brandeis observed that “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant” and that “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects”. This sentiment has been a driving force behind the movement to open up political and financial data (and gave The Sunlight Foundation its name). For some, however, it seemed pretty clear that transparency alone was not enough. As Aaron Swartz commented in 2006:
“…just making important data available won’t cause political change. Justice Brandeis’s clever aphorism to the contrary, sunlight is not in fact the best disinfectant; actual disinfectant is. Sunlight just makes it easier for people to look at the pus.”
I suggest that this sentiment be taken further still: Sunlight won’t even show people the pus (or anything else) if it is shining on the wrong thing, or no one looks at what it is illuminating.
For data transparency to bring about positive impacts the following conditions must be met:
- These data must be sufficiently appropriate, accurate, timely, comprehensive, and accessible for actors who have the agency to bring about positive impacts.
- Such actors must have the skills, awareness, capacity, resources, and inclination to use these data to bring about impactful change.
However, the data being published don’t yet meet the conditions described above. And indeed, only a few of these conditions can be met through publication, others need data providers and data demanders to sit down, to engage, to explore the data, to understand what it means, how it can be used, and where the gaps are. As a recent IATI blog post notes:
“There is little information about the outcomes and impact achieved by organisations. For example, when publishing data about projects on hunger, an organisation may state that their objective is to solve malnourishment. However, their indicator only counts the number of food boxes supplied through the project. I would like to know more about how a child was supplied with the food box and how this will lead to fighting malnourishment in the long term.”
Over the last couple of years Publish What You Fund has become increasingly focused on the challenges and opportunities of aid data utilisation. We carried out research in Benin and Tanzania, Nigeria, and will shortly be publishing the findings of our research into humanitarian data needs on the ground in Bangladesh and Iraq. One theme common to all of these studies is the gulf between the data needs of the practitioners on the ground (generally in the Global South) and the information being provided by publishers (generally in the Global North). One story from Iraq particularly stands out for me. When asked what data would be most useful to them, local organisations said the location of recent ISIL attacks, to enable them to safely plan journeys.
The progress that has been made over the course of the last nine years is commendable – it has taken a huge effort by tens of thousands of stakeholders, and has, above all, demonstrated the art of the possible. We need to maintain this energy and focus but we also need to rebalance the effort we put into publication and sharing of data, versus actually meeting with and understanding the stakeholders we hope to serve with this information. Inclusive dialogue can build trust and awareness, and the feedback that can be gained from it will serve to only improve the utility and impact of the data.
Paul Lenz is the Trust Executive at Indigo Trust, which funds education, agriculture and transparency and accountability initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. He was previously Head of Finance and International Projects for mySociety, where he led the international engagement team. Paul’s role covered overall operational management, with a focus on working with partner groups to use mySociety’s tools and open source code base to drive democratic engagement and accountability around the world.