Reflections on Busan
The first thing that struck us in Busan is that transparency has risen to the top of the political agenda, accompanied by a good understanding of the importance of promoting common standards for the publication of information, and of providing aid information that is user-centric rather than provider-focussed.
We were encouraged that a number of speakers, including Denmark’s new Minister for Development Cooperation, Christian Friis Bach, recognised that improving access to information has the power to transform societies. And others, like IFRC’s Mukesh Kapila, expressed frustration with the pace of change and the need for more realistic and solid data and statistics.
There was also widespread recognition of the need to view aid alongside all of the other available resources for poverty reduction, and to focus on its unique contribution within that wider context. It is clear that many of the old modalities for delivering aid are no longer pre-eminent – what President Kagame referred to as ‘structural and attitude related barriers’. The modern world is one where data and information are more accessible, where there are many more actors, often supporting development in different ways, and where there is growing respect for country ownership, not just as a matter of principle, but because it’s much more likely to be effective as Raj Shah, USAID Administrator said, moving from being a provider or assistance to being a partner in solving problems.
It is clear that the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has gained widespread recognition. Five new signatories announced their intention to join IATI during HLF4, including the US and Canada, and we also heard expressions of interest from NGOs, CSOs and private sector actors. In fact I was standing in the Starbucks queue, talking to someone from Canada that I had never met before and congratulating him on Canada joining IATI, only for him to say that his agency,UNCDF, was also in the process of signing up. What was also interesting was the range of organisations from the private sector to CSOs to researchers who could see the potential for a common standard on resource information.
The fact that IATI signatories now represent over 75% of global ODA makes a huge difference, turning IATI into a mainstream Initiative and – realistically – the only available mechanism for implementing the transparency commitments set out in paragraph 23 of the Busan Global Partnership. There was a striking difference between the laborious and cumbersome processes of trading off priorities in order to get to a common outcome document and the reality that people are voting with their feet, publishing to IATI, developing ways of getting feedback and information to and from the people who are supposed to benefit from aid.
The challenges ahead are first, for those who have signed IATI to implement it fully, publishing the data that people working for poverty reduction need, and second, to support greater use of that data, creating a virtuous circle with demand for better data spurring supply, with IATI as the common international standard for delivering this.
Technology is already creating exciting developments in feedback – UNICEF’s project in Uganda is recruiting young people to use SMS to report on schools, water points and other facilities. 1000 young people a day are registering to use this facility and the findings are reported in the media and to parliamentarians. The power of improved access to information, and in particular the opportunities for true accountability opened up by geocoding data and making transactions transparent clearly caught the imagination of many Busan participants.
But there is a much bigger picture here. We need to see the question of access to data on resources – both aid and government spending – as central to both involving and being accountable to citizens. It catches the mood of our times, where citizens everywhere are making it clear that they want better access to information to make choices and exercise control over their lives. In response, an increasing number of governments – both those who give and those who receive aid – are becoming much more open, as highlighted by the launch of the Open Aid Partnership in Busan.
We believe that access to information must be part of the agenda for post 2015, going beyond delivery of services to empowering citizens to have choices take more control of their lives. It struck me that transparency is an issue where the technical meets the transformative. Supplying better data to a common standard is something that donors can actually do quickly and easily – it is not like overcoming centuries of gender discrimination or resolving longstanding conflicts. And the use of that information is genuinely transformative – not just because it improves aid effectiveness and efficiency, but because it also transforms the power relationships around the table.