In the latest of our Aid Transparency Index blogs, Isabelle Kermeen of Integrity Action asks where aid recipients are in the conversation about aid transparency and data engagement. She reflects on the need for aid recipients to know where the money is coming from and influence the agenda of donors.
Transparency and accountability of aid agencies and donors as measured by the Aid Transparency Index is critical and, as shown in the 2020 index, is improving. Aid needs to be more effective, and the index is supporting this cause. But we need to keep sight of accountability towards aid recipients and keep asking the big question – where is the aid recipient in the conversation? Do citizens in countries receiving development and humanitarian funding know where the funds are coming from and what their intended use is? Do they even know where to get this information? And do they have any kind of chance of influencing a donor’s agenda?
When launching the latest index, Publish What You Fund has proposed a shift from data use to data engagement. The engagement of citizens in this data is something we seek to promote at Integrity Action, particularly through supporting citizens to find out what they were promised by development actors, and then monitoring whether it was delivered. So what is the state of this engagement? Here we combine our reflections with those of some of the local and national CSOs we have worked with.
Where’s the money coming from?
A key precondition of influencing essential services and projects is knowing who is providing them. This in itself is a big challenge. Likewise, if my government is failing to deliver high quality healthcare, I might assume that it is because they are too stretched – and I might not realise that an external funder has pledged millions to do just that.
George Osei-Akoto-Bimpeh, Country Director of SEND-GHANA notes that: “Citizens often implicitly and explicitly assume that everything they get from government is provided for by government. They need to know the source of funding of social services they access and a distinction between what is paid by government and donors ought to be made clear… such information should be made available.”
If recipient communities understand where the money is coming from and who to address when things go wrong, they can more constructively engage to ensure they are receiving the intended support.
Can the community influence the donor?
Most development agencies seek to consult with communities in order to fully understand their needs and as such, what kind of intervention is appropriate. But agencies must also meet donor criteria when bidding for funding, so we also need to ask whether donors are directly engaging with affected communities, and whether there are ways for communities to influence the donors. There is an interest among affected communities to know not only what they have been promised and how to influence that, but also whether the donor in question is actually open to being influenced.
As noted by Elsheber Oketch, board member of our partner organisation Kwale Youth and Governance Consortium in Kenya, “Citizens need to understand the project donor, the amount of money that is expected to benefit them directly and how the money they receive is expected to be used. Sometimes citizens want to know if they can influence how the money is being spent.”
This last point is crucial: citizens do want to engage, but often lack the know-how or channels to actually do this – and sometimes it isn’t made easy.
Is detailed information accessible for intended recipients?
Our work at Integrity Action is about supporting communities to monitor what is promised against what is delivered, and get problems fixed by those responsible. But it’s hard to do that when you don’t know exactly what you should be receiving in your community. That might mean precise budget information, project schedules, or detailed plans and contracts for infrastructure. Ensuring transparency at this level may seem a big ask, but we believe it’s essential for accountability to the people who really matter.
So, can affected communities access documentation to check what’s been promised in the first place? Our experience of working in countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa tells us that this is often a stumbling block. Foreign funds might have trickled down through governments and to local communities, but the relevant documentation rarely gets shared with the people this funding is supposed to support.
On the topic of aid data, Executive Director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan Sayed Ikram Afzali said: “I believe we are making progress with making budget info accessible to the public but we need donors to condition their aid to making data available to the public. In addition, donors have not made an attempt to create capacity or to raise awareness about the data they are making available on off budget support to Afghanistan. We expect donors to go beyond checking the box of publishing data online.”
How can we achieve meaningful engagement with aid recipients?
The conversation around aid effectiveness has been around for a while, and continues to pick up momentum, but meaningful engagement of aid recipients would address the disconnect between citizens and the sometimes far off original donor. This could be achieved by:
- Ensuring that recipient communities know where funding for certain initiatives has come from, and what has been promised. This information needs to be in appropriate formats so that it reaches the intended audience, and they can understand it
- Ensuring that affected communities can engage with donors if they have feedback – there is a need for appropriate channels for this, as well as tailored information for communities on how and when to engage. This may require working with or training communities on their right to participate and access information, and how they can meaningfully engage. It also means making opportunities for engagement accessible to a diverse range of stakeholders so that vulnerable people are not excluded
- Ensuring that donors go beyond seeing this as a box-ticking exercise, that they genuinely work to facilitate engagement with affected communities, and that they are open to being influenced by target communities
Transparency towards taxpayers in the donor country, as well as the wider sector, is important, but let’s not lose sight of accountability towards those who at the end of the day are supposed to benefit from the projects being funded.
Isabelle Kermeen is the Communications Manager at Integrity Action, which supports citizens to monitor local projects and services using tech tool DevelopmentCheck and work with those responsible to get problems addressed. Previously, Isabelle worked for an anti-corruption organisation in Austria and UNOCHA in Sudan, as well as peace and development organisations in Sweden and Sri Lanka.