Towards the end of last year we began a review of the Aid Transparency Index assessment method. High on our list of priorities was the issue of networking and linking of aid data, and how we might measure this in the Index. Aid and development finance are channelled through a complex network of organisations including governments, multilateral organisations, non-governmental organisations and private companies. These often form “delivery chains”. Funding originates from a donor (such as a government aid agency) and is sub-contracted to an implementer or intermediary (usually a multilateral organisation or fund, NGO or consultancy company). That organisation then sub-contracts parts of the programme to other implementers (such as international or national NGOs) that deliver the aid to its destination, completing the chain.
If we can understand how money and finance flows through and across these delivery chains we can gain insights into how the aid system works, make it more accountable and improve coordination. This, in turn, could improve efficiency and effectiveness. Aid organisations can show these linkages and flows in their transparency data, and including a measure in the Index of how well this is being done could incentivise better practice.
Linking organisations, activities and financial flow data is one of the design features of the IATI Standard. Implementing “traceability” is one of the priorities identified in the 2020-2025 IATI Strategic Plan and IATI issued new guidance in June on linking data. There are two main approaches. First, when money is transferred from one organisation to another, references can be included in the financial data that connect funder to recipient, or contractor to implementer – this is done from activity to activity, so we could call this “activity linking”. Second, publishers can list the organisations involved in their activities, whether as funders, implementers or partners. For ease of reference we will refer to this as “organisation linking”.
These two approaches should facilitate mapping of organisations in the aid network and could allow data users to follow aid delivery through chains. Another challenge for using IATI data is double counting: total aid volumes recorded in the data are artificially inflated as spending of the same money is recorded by different organisations as it is disbursed down the delivery chain. Consistent linking of activities could provide the information required to identify and correct for this when producing aggregate spending totals.
As we explored how we might measure such linking in the Aid Transparency Index we looked into how these two networking approaches are being implemented. We first looked at activity linking. The technical way of linking activities in IATI data is to include a reference in an incoming or outgoing transaction to the provider or receiver activity. So, for example – if a donor publishes details of a large programme with several implementing partners, each implementing partner should publish details about their activity and include a reference to the donor programme in an incoming fund transaction. This can then be reciprocated by the donor who can publish a reference to the implementer activity in an outgoing fund transaction.
Sounds reasonably simple – right? The problem is that few publishers are linking their activities in this way. We previously looked at the state of play of activity linking in 2019 and wrote this blog about it, which was based on this galaxy-like interactive data visualisation. We recently revisited the analysis, with thanks to developer Andy Lulham who updated the visualisation. While there has been some improvement in the past two years – there are more links overall and more organisations included in the map – the limitations we identified in 2019 still hold. We can see the same constellations of links around the handful of bilateral donors that have promoted activity linking with their downstream partners (Netherlands MFA, Belgium DGD and to a lesser extent UK FCDO), but the same large organisations are still absent (USAID, the World Bank, Global Affairs Canada, EC INTPA, other major European donors).
Visualisation of the IATI activity link network
The raw data shows more clearly how limited this type of linking is. Of the 1360 IATI publishers, 187 are publishing links, and 90% of all the links are to or from just 30 of these. The total number of activity links is 7,307, while there are just over a million total activities published in the IATI Standard.
With uptake of activity linking so low, we started to wonder whether this would be suitable for an Index indicator. When we consulted stakeholders they also raised concerns that a measure of activity links would involve scoring an organisation based on the behaviour of their partners. Most activity links are upstream – meaning they are links published by implementers or intermediaries to the corresponding funder activity. To date the Index has scored donors based on their own transparency and data publication only, so scoring them based on whether or not third parties are publishing links would be a departure from this principle. These two factors led us to decide against an activity linking indicator for now.
Next on our list for review was organisation linking. Most IATI publishers include data about participating organisations in their activities. However, networking data is inhibited by a lack of standardisation of organisation names. Many organisation names can be written in a number of different ways: with or without acronyms, different languages or changes of name after a rebrand or merger. For example, a recent Centre for Humanitarian Data report on their development of an IATI COVID-19 data dashboard identified seven different names for the same organisation: “UNHCR”, “UNHCR/United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”, “UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES”, “UNO Flüchtlingshilfe”, “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”, “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)”, and “United Nations Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”. This makes it difficult to consistently map links to the same organisation.
The way around this is to use common, standardised references for organisations – in this case, the IATI Identifier for UNHCR: XM-DAC-41121. Use of common references for organisations allows consistent and joined-up mapping of the network of organisations publishing IATI data. Publishers currently use these references but use is inconsistent across organisations. Given that it would be relatively straight-forward to measure how well it is being used we decided to include this in our new Networked data indicator. We hope this will encourage standardisation, build the list of recognised references and encourage use of the participating organisation fields.
The Networked data indicator
The Networked data indicator is based on a two part test. The first part of the test reviews whether organisations are including the name of the implementing organisations of their activities. The second part checks across the participating organisations in an activity and awards points when standardised references are included. Where there are no standardised references, points are lost. The test checks the references against the list of IATI publishers, a list of known organisation prefixes, and the OECD DAC Channel Codes (which are identified in IATI by using an XM-DAC- prefix). Self-references are excluded from the test and we carry out manual sampling of the participating organisations and references to check that they are being used correctly.
There are some limitations to this approach to organisation linking: there are currently no accepted references to most partner country government ministries or to private companies that receive investment from development finance institutions. Likewise, no approach has yet been developed for security redactions when directly identifying an organisation could place people at risk. However, we hope that the inclusion of this new indicator in the Index will also provide some impetus for the IATI community to develop ways to fill these holes in the network.