How will transparency initiatives impact development agencies?
This post first appeared on Linda Raftree’s blog on 13 June, many thanks to Linda for allowing us to cross-post. This is a shortened version that covers discussion that took place on the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and its impacts on US-based development agencies. You can view the full version here.
The Technology Salon hosted at IREX on Thursday, June 6, focused on what the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) would mean for international development, especially for US-based NGOs and government contractors.
What is the overlap between the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and IATI?
IATI was a top down process; OGP is a bottom-up process. IATI may fit under a work-stream in OGP, and there will be continuing discussions about how these two initiatives can work with each other. OGP doesn’t have many practical tools yet, and IATI can be a practical implementation of OGP national action plans. The two need each other for optimal impact. (See this explanation of where some of the current aid and government transparency initiatives overlap).
What is the practical, on-the-ground use or application of IATI data? What does it look like when it is working how it should? What would it ideally look like 5 years from now?
There is enormous need for data sharing in a crisis – it is essential for coordinating and understanding the unfolding situations in real-time in order to save lives. There is much more scrutiny as well as a need for rapid coordination and response during a humanitarian crisis, so it requires a higher level of transparency than development work. One way that has been suggested for getting more organizations on board is to start sharing more information during crises and draw the lessons over to development.
A project in Mexico City has run investigative campaigns on spending. This has led to the prosecution and resignations of political figures and even some threats against staff, which demonstrates how unsettling this open information can be to the powers that be. It is not about transparency for transparency’s sake. It’s about having a tool that can be used to inform and interpret situations and hold governments and donors accountable. It opens the system up for sharing information.
Currently this type of information isn’t available to Country Governments for coordination. Countries need to plan their fiscal year budgets, but rely heavily on donors, and both run on a different fiscal calendar. If donor information were more readily available, countries could plan better.
On a 5-year horizon, we would ideally see aid tracking down to the beneficiary level. Tools like IATI can help collect data in more automated ways. Open data can help us track both where funding is allocated and also what is actually being implemented. Additional work is needed on this side; for example, training journalists to understand how to use this data, how to access it – handing them a data file isn’t a very useful thing in and of itself.
That’s great, but great for whom? What does it mean? Does this lead to better aid? Better spending? And what if it creates unrealistic timelines, where development becomes more like a for-profit company that must demonstrate impact within a fiscal quarter? We all know that development initiatives and impact take much longer than three months. Will IATI mean that we will stop doing things that take longer? Things that cannot be checked off on a checkbox? Will we actually lower the quality of our programs by doing this?
IATI, like any form of transparency, is only one element of a whole stream of things. The new USAID monitoring and evaluation system is a breakthrough for actually learning from evaluations and data. It’s a longer-term investment than Congress is used to, so it’s a matter of convincing Congress that it is worth the value. There is a better chance of USAID admitting failure in the future if the systems are in place to demonstrate these failures in hard data and learn from them. It’s about discovering why we failed – if we spend money and it doesn’t work, we can at least then identify weaknesses and build on them. Showing failures also demonstrates credibility and a willingness to move forward positively.
We can err on the side of openness and transparency and engage congress and the public, making a distinction between performance management and the long-term impact of development projects. There is no way of holding back on publishing information until it is in a format that will be readily understandable to congress and the public. This is a reality that we are going to have to live with; we have to put the data out and build on it. This can help start important conversations. IATI is important for closing the loop, not just on public resources but also private resources (which is why Hewlett’s commitment is important). As private development resources increase, USAID becomes less dominant in the development landscape. Making sure data from many sources comes in a common format will make it easy to compare, and bring this data together to help understand what it going on. The way to visualize and think of it now is different because we are still in early days. IATI will begin to change the approach for how you evaluate impact.
IATI data itself does not tell the whole story, so it’s important to look at additional sources of information beyond it. IATI is only one part of the monitoring and evaluation effort, only one part of the transparency and accountability effort.
How do you overcome conflicts of interest? If development outcomes or data that is opened are not in the interest of the country government, how do we know the data can be trusted, or how does it feed back to the public in each country?
China’s investment in Africa, for example, may make it more difficult to understand aid flows in some ways. It will take a while to enforce the standards, particularly if it is done quickly, but we can draw the BRICs into the conversation and we are working with them on these topics.
The hard part is the implementation. So what are the time lines? How soon do we think we will see the US publish data to IATI?
At this time, the US Government hasn’t created an implementation timeline, so the first order of business is to get IATI institutionalized, and not to rush on this. It’s a larger issue than just USAID, so it must be done carefully and tactfully so it stays in place over the long term. USAID is working on getting data on the Dashboard to get the Obligation of Spending data up and project level data up. USAID is trying to balance this with consistency and quality control. How do you produce quality data when you are publishing regularly? These issues must be addressed while the systems are being developed. Once USAID puts data on the Dashboard, it will begin being converted to IATI data
IATI is still a donor-led initiative. NGOs involvement opens this data up to use by communities. Training individuals to use this information is not necessarily sufficient. Are there plans to build institutions or civil society organizations to support the data to be useful for communities and the general public?
The data can assist with the development of watchdog organizations who provide a platform for citizens to act together for accountability. Examples of organizations that are currently receiving funding to do this are Sodnet and Twaweza. There has also been support to think tanks throughout Africa to build the capacity of objective, independent policy analysts who write critiques of government initiatives.
There is a definite need to mainstream IATI and bring everyone together into one single conversation instead of setting up parallel structures.
So how do you build these institutions, watchdogs, etc? Will USAID really put out RFPs that offer funding to train people to criticize them?
This is where Hewlett and other organizations come in. They can run these trainings and build capacities. The Knight News Challenge is doing a lot of work around data-driven journalism, for example.
This is going to put a lot of pressure on people to be more efficient and might drive down resources in these spheres. There is a limited amount of incentive for organizations to involve themselves. Is there a way to incentivize it?
It will also drive some internal efficiencies, creating greater internal coherence within development organizations. It’s very hard to pinpoint impact within organizations because there isn’t an easy way to draw comparisons between projects, implementation strategies, etc. People always worry: What if we find something that makes us look bad? So IATI is just one part of a bigger effort to push for commitment to transparency across the board. Committing to IATI can lead to a mindset which focuses organizations on efficiency, transparency and accountability.
Filling out the Dashboard will be helpful in many respects, and it will make information more accessible to the general public, as well as congressional staffers, etc. It can serve multiple constituencies while making data more usable and transparent. USAID is going to be as aggressive as possible to get information on the dashboard into IATI format. There has not been a conversation about requiring implementing partners to meet IATI standards, but USAID itself is committed.