International Aid Transparency: Cui Bono?

By Catherine Weaver (University of Texas at Austin and Innovations for Peace and Development) and Josh Powell (Development Gateway and AidData, Washington, DC)

Over the past decade, the international aid transparency movement has made considerable progress in opening the information spigots, firmly bringing the big data revolution to the nearly $200 billion (annual) global development industry. This has been accomplished through international mechanisms like IATI , AidData, development agency portals and dashboards (such as the UK’s DevTracker and World Bank Open Data Policy), and domestic aid information management systems such as the public Aid Management Platform in Nepal and  Malawi.

We are just beginning to explore how open aid data is used and how it impacts the success of development programs and the lives of the poor.

However, to date, the supply of open aid data has been largely disconnected from efforts to understand the actual use and impact of aid information.

Pictured Above: Malawi’s Open Aid Map

The result is a discernible market disconnect between the supply of, demand for and use of open aid data. On the one hand, we have learned a great deal about how to harness new technologies and political will to make aid agencies’ programs and spending publicly accessible. We have even developed robust accountability mechanisms, such as Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, to rank donors and to highlight areas where they should report more comprehensive, timely and detailed data. On the other hand, we have only a nascent theory of change and scant empirical evidence on who benefits (cui bono?) from such transparency.

Specifically, we are just beginning to explore how open aid data is used and how it impacts the success of development programs and the lives of the poor. While we inherently believe that transparency yields greater opportunity for accountability, feedback and learning, efforts to rigorously test such assumptions with primary empirical research have lagged behind the considerable optimism that drives the open aid movement.

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In the past year, there have been many efforts to fill this knowledge gap, through the use of case studies that examine why and how civil society, media, and government actors have engaged with open data systems. (See, e.g. the Web Foundation’s Open Data for Development working paper series and the publications of the World Bank’s Open Aid Partnership). We have in turn sought to complement the burgeoning supply of subnational geospatial data on aid programs with country-level work in Nepal and Uganda that seeks to understand data use. Working with key partners like the Open Aid Partnership, Oxfam USA, InterAction, and the Follow the Money Network, we look forward to engaging in frank discussions to move the aid transparency movement into the post-2015 world.

While this research is at an early stage, we offer here four emerging findings from our work that illuminate key lessons for how we can better connect open aid supply to demand and use:

  1. Increase awareness of open aid data. People cannot engage with data that they do not know exist. Increased awareness of open data systems will be key to unlocking the potential of transparency to translate into aid accountability and effectiveness by enabling civil society and government feedback loops. Increased awareness will also lead actors to interrogate and validate the data, helping to overcome initial levels of distrust regarding the accuracy of data.
  1. Technical and analytical capacity is a serious constraint, as are myriad demands on the time and resources of various potential open data consumers. In addition to building skills and techniques among data users, it is critical to ensure that data are truly accessible in usable formats and that mediums are not unnecessarily complicated or difficult to find.

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  1. Identify and engage intermediaries. Aid data in raw form is a quagmire of dizzying statistics that only the savviest technical users can penetrate. Aid data on its own is largely useless, unless combined with other data types and sources (e.g. national budgets, socioeconomic indicators, and private sector and remittance data). Intermediaries are the actors that facilitate access to data, ‘join-up related datasets, and translate complex information into forms that resonate with end users.  As our research has shown, intermediaries are critical not just in developing countries where technical barriers to online information or capacity to analyze big data inhibit engagement with open aid data. Even in highly developed countries’ legislative bodies, there is discernible need for intermediaries to play a role in making data accessible and usable.
  1. Information is a source of power. Data transparency will require changing political and organizational cultures as much as changing policy. Sustainability of open aid will depend on those who produce the open data developing habits of consuming the same data for internal decision-making and data management.  As Owen Barder has said, once data producers start to “eat their own dog food”, attention to the quality and timeliness of data will follow. And that’s when we’ll start to see the gap between supply and demand shrink.

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