Q&A with Joseph Asunka on the big hurdle to using aid data

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The International Aid Transparency Initiative aims to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand. It’s meant to help individuals in developing countries and donor countries see where aid, development and humanitarian money comes from, where it goes, and whether it helps reduce poverty.  The IATI Members’ Assembly, which includes country governments, multilateral development institutions, civil society organizations, and representatives from the public and private sector, will meet in Copenhagen June 29-30 to approve a new vision and mission for the initiative.

Joseph Asunka, program officer with our Global Development and Population Program, focuses on how government officials and citizens use public information about revenue, taxes, contracts and budgets to improve policy. He will be at the IATI meeting and told me why they’re thinking about a new approach and how it could increase opportunities for policymakers and citizens to use the data to improve development policy and practice.

Why is the International Aid Transparency Initiative searching for a new vision and mission?

First, a brief background: IATI was launched at the Third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra in September 2008. It’s a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative, comprising providers of development cooperation, partner countries, and civil society organizations, that seeks to increase transparency of development cooperation. At the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan in 2011, IATI endorsers adopted a common, open standard for publishing aid information. This common standard was reached through consultations with all the key stakeholders: donors, recipient country governments, and civil society organizations.

Joseph_AsunkaSince its inception, the initiative has been governed by a multi-stakeholder Steering Committee. As the community grew, this governance arrangement became unwieldy for decision-making and the need for reform became increasingly apparent. A recent evaluation of the initiative confirmed a widespread dissatisfaction with the governance structure among the main stakeholders, which prompted a call for reform. On April 1, 2016 (and this is not a hoax), IATI adopted a two-tier governance structure comprising a new Governing Board and a Members’ Assembly, which replaced the Steering Committee.

The evaluation also highlighted a number of questions around the future direction of the initiative, such as: Does IATI strive to become more a global data standard in of itself, i.e. a “container” for data, or does it work to become more a development effectiveness tool? Can both these paths be pursued jointly by IATI? These questions underlie the current efforts to define IATI’s vision and mission. The process has started and will conclude at the first Members’ Assembly meeting next week where members will deliberate and ratify a new vision statement and a new mission statement.

400 Organizations Increasing Access with IATI

To date, more than 400 organizations, including some of the largest donors, publish information on development cooperation to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard.

What kind of aid data exists and who uses it?

There has been quite a lot of progress and helpful innovations on the IATI standard itself and in making the data available and relevant to potential consumers, notably governments and citizens of aid recipient countries. To date, more than 400 organizations, including some of the largest donors, publish information on development cooperation to the standard. For this group of publishers, it is now possible to know how much money they are providing, when and where the money will be spent and what it is expected to achieve. There are also options for publishers to include more nuanced data, including spatial data showing specific areas – regions, districts etc. – that benefit from aid resources.

With respect to aid transparency, the initiative has made considerable progress to date. If the number of publishers continue to grow monotonically – IATI needs to actively pursue this – the initiative would be well-positioned to make a significant contribution to the aid effectiveness agenda. Indeed the original motivation for the standard was to improve aid transparency and it appears that endorsers are increasingly comfortable and have the necessary skills to do so in a timely manner. This is an excellent outcome; but transparency to what end?

This is where the importance of data use comes in and I think it should be a central theme in the new IATI vision and mission statements. To be sure, some aid recipient countries governments have used IATI data in development planning and other purposes, but this has been very limited. And even though there are excellent examples of how the data could be used as a monitoring and accountability tool – a crucial element of the aid effectiveness agenda – very little has been done in this area.

Focusing on data use – building the necessary skills in-country, making the data store more intuitive and flexible, encouraging the production of infographics etc. – would advance the aid effectiveness agenda in many ways:

  1. Governments would have the capacity to use IATI data for development policy planning and implementation.
  2. Citizens, civil society groups and other stakeholders could use the data to hold governments accountable for the use of aid resources.
  3. Donors would have an added incentive, perhaps a greater incentive, to continue publishing to the standard. It not enough for a donor to commit resources to publishing to a standard only to demonstrate transparency. That the data is actually being used to make a difference in people’s lives in an expected way is much more incentivizing. Moreover, this could serve as a strong recruitment tool for donors who are yet to sign on to the standard.

Governments need to have the necessary capacity and skills to make use of the data; and for citizens to be able to leverage this data to hold their governments accountable, there is a need for some amount of data processing.

Joseph Asunka

How can citizens in developing countries use aid data to improve government services?

The potential impact of IATI on government services is twofold: first, because the initiative strives (and also encourages donors) to publish forward-looking data, it helps to enhance the overall quality of government development policy planning. In a recent interview with Frederick Krah at the Liberian ministry of finance and development planning, Krah said IATI data gives a realistic picture of most external resources and informs their development strategy and national budget preparation. Second, since IATI data are public and include detailed information on the amount of money as well as where, what and how the money is to be spent, the initiative offers citizens the opportunity to monitor the use of aid resources and to hold their governments accountable for services.  Effective planning of national budgets by governments and citizen oversight/monitoring should lead to improved publics services.

However, I must say that IATI data by itself is not pretty and certainly not immediately digestible by both governments and citizens. Governments need to have the necessary capacity and skills to make use of the data; and for citizens to be able to leverage this data to hold their governments accountable, there is a need for some amount of data processing. A possible way forward would be to encourage a network of infomediaries to make the data digestible for civil society organizations, including journalists, as well as other citizen groups interested in monitoring the use of aid resources.

What can IATI supporters do to make sure people use the data?

I can think of at least three things that could help in this direction. First, the IATI community should continue to work on improving the quality of the data and increasing the coverage though active recruitment and retention of providers of development cooperation. Interest in using the data could grow very rapidly if IATI is able to capture a large proportion of aid data. Second, the community needs to build (or at least facilitate) a network of data intermediary organizations who would analyze and present the information in ways that is easier to digest and who can respond to requests for IATI data in specific formats. I imagine that such a network would benefit the work of journalists and other transparency and accountability civil society organizations in aid recipient countries. Third, the community should strive to build the capacity of developing country governments to use and innovate with IATI data.

Is there anything else you hope IATI members discuss?

I will revisit the issue of data coverage: IATI needs to do more to improve coverage of aid resource flows. With more coverage, governments and citizens of recipient countries would have a much fuller picture of aid resource flows into the national budget, including projected future flows. I hope that the meeting will deliberate on the way forward for attracting new publishers.

For a start, I think an interactive and regularly updated data visualization tool could help with recruitment. I am thinking of a map of world showing where IATI data downloads are occurring. Just knowing the spatial distribution of data downloads, not necessarily whether or how it is used, would be useful in many ways: the community would have an idea on where the data is being accessed and at what frequency, which could be helpful for IATI to follow-up and learn how the data is used and/or target technical support as part of efforts to promote data use. Showcasing the patterns of data downloads and how that informs IATI’s strategy for promoting data use might help to attract donors who are yet to publish to the standard. And if there is flexibility to incorporate citizen feedback on whether projects have been completed and/or specific services delivered, that will take the aid effectiveness agenda to the next level.

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