The ingredients of aid transparency: political commitment, consumer pressure, the right tools

Written by Robin Davies

We will make the full range of information on publicly funded development activities, their financing, terms and conditions, and contribution to development results, publicly available.

So said participants in the Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness a little over five years ago. December 2015 was the deadline for fully implementing the electronic publication of ‘timely, forward-looking and comprehensive’ information on development finance.

More than a year on from that deadline, nobody suggests that the Busan transparency commitment has been met. A late-2016 OECD/UNDP monitoring report on this and other Busan commitments, which must be considered a self-assessment, strove to present the situation in the best possible light. It said,

transparency is moving in the right direction … progress has been most notable in the timeliness and comprehensiveness of the information that is made publicly available, while the publication of forward-looking information continues to present a challenge for many development partners.

A more disinterested assessment, from earlier in 2016, was that of the organisation Publish What You Fund. They said,

despite progress over the last five years, analysis of 46 aid donors found that most have failed to uphold [the Busan] commitment.

By their reckoning, only 10 donors, accounting for 25% of global aid, had fully implemented the Busan transparency commitment. In addition, 28 of the organisations assessed scored no better, and often far worse, than ‘fair’ in Publish What You Fund’s 2016 Aid Transparency Index.

I recently discussed the state of play on aid transparency with Publish What You Fund’s London-based CEO, Rupert Simons, who will soon visit Australia to speak at the Development Policy Centre’s 2017 Australasian Aid Conference. We were joined also by Elise Dufief, the organisation’s Research and Monitoring Manager, who is in the process of reviewing the methodology used for the Aid Transparency Index. You can hear the full conversation here, or read a transcript here. The main points are highlighted below.

Why the Aid Transparency Index marks donors harder than they do themselves

Publish What You Fund has long been a staunch proponent of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Much of its early work, in the period 2008 to 2011, was about building development agencies’ commitment to transparency and, in particular, getting them on board with IATI. Over time, the emphasis has shifted to monitoring development agencies’ adherence to their transparency commitments. That’s where the Aid Transparency Index comes in. First published in 2011 and updated regularly, this assesses the visibility and quality of data on development finance and helps, in Rupert’s words, ‘to promote a race to the top’.[1]

As you would expect, IATI plays a central role in the Aid Transparency Index. To do well in the index, an organisation has to publish a decent amount of information according to the IATI Standard. Indeed, as Elise says, ‘to be in the Very Good category, you have to publish all your information to IATI’. That includes both financial and qualitative information. Publication also needs to be timely.

By contrast, the OECD/UNDP assessment mentioned above, the second of its kind, gave credit to organisations for participating in two parallel OECD data-gathering processes even if their IATI reporting was not great.[2] That might sound fair enough, but it’s not such a good thing. The parallel processes in question mainly involve transparency about financial allocations and flows rather than qualitative transparency (for example, transparency about project-related documentation). And they yield no information about what is happening in anything close to real time.

Why progress on aid transparency, when it’s good, is good

Disappointments notwithstanding, Rupert (with Owen Barder) does believe that there has been a lot of progress on a transparency over the last five years. He illustrates this from personal experience.

In 2009, I went to work in Papua New Guinea as a consultant advising the government on climate change—and one of my first tasks was to find out what all the other organisations in the country—donors, NGOs—were doing about climate change.

And really, the only way to find out was to get in a minivan and drive around Port Moresby, talking to all the donors in turn, and the bigger conservation and development NGOs, and try to build a picture through legwork.

Now, if you fast-forward six or seven years, it’s just not like that anymore. Whenever I visit a country on Publish What You Fund business, I can go online and take a look at the data on the IATI registry as to who is doing what and where, and, in some cases, you can also see the results.

Rupert adds that while only 25% of global aid meets the highest transparency standards, over 90% of official development finance is covered by some kind of information publication scheme.

The big challenges now, Rupert believes, relate to quality and utilisation. Many donors are reporting only partial information, or are updating information infrequently, and many donors have not integrated the IATI Standard into their internal management systems. In addition, many parties with an interest in the information published lack the tools and capacity to make good use of it.

Where donor organisations have done particularly well on aid transparency, Rupert observes, this has invariability resulted from high-level political commitment, as seen in the UK when Andrew Mitchell was Secretary for International Development, and as seen at UNDP under Helen Clark’s leadership.

In Australia’s case, Rupert notes, political commitment appears to have flagged since the change of government in 2013. Nevertheless, he thinks it would require no great effort for Australia to rank substantially higher than it has to date—we are persistently just ‘fair’—in the Aid Transparency Index.

Why aid-effectiveness carnivals don’t matter

It’s not just Australia. There’s a large question in Rupert’s mind about the level of political commitment to aid transparency in many donor countries at the present time. He was recently at the Nairobi High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, and came away with the distinct impression that the aid effectiveness agenda, including the aid transparency agenda, has ‘gone off the boil internationally’. He supposes that this is due, at least in part, to a loss of trust in multilateral processes across several policy domains.

Undaunted, Rupert takes the view, which seems to me right and important, that what happens at the level of individual developing countries is more important than what happens in multilateral conference halls. This is particularly the case in relation to non-DAC bilateral donors.

Whereas at Busan, we felt there was an attempt to bring [non-OECD bilateral donors] into the multilateral system by making them commit to the Busan principles, it was apparent at Nairobi that that agenda has broadly failed and that the way to bring new players up to international standards of transparency will be through pressure put on them by their partners at country level.

We are aware of examples, both in Africa and in the Asia-Pacific, in which the emerging donors, including the Chinese government, were a lot more responsive to partner country demands at the local level than they would appear to be at the international level.

Why customer pressure isn’t enough

If development agencies were only transparent in places where they had to be, in order to secure their licenses to operate, then clearly external observers would never be able to gain a complete picture of those agencies’ work, let alone form a view about how sensibly and effectively aid from those sources is being allocated and used. (Even if donors were entirely transparent at the level of individual countries, a very large proportion of ‘bilateral’ aid is now provided outside country allocations.[3])

This suggests, and Rupert agrees, that there is a continuing need to focus advocacy and technical effort as much on the supply side as on the demand side. One specific objective here is to persuade donors not only to release data but also to make it digestible and manipulable by building donor-specific IATI portals. Publish What You Fund has regularly urged Australia to do just that.

A more ambitious objective would be to persuade somebody (I would say, as argued here, that it should be the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee) to develop a well-functioning central portal for accessing and manipulating IATI information from all sources. Without this, it is hard to perceive quality shortfalls relative to good practice and to undertake cross-country comparisons. Rupert agrees that there’s a need for greater investment in tools for mining the growing stock of available data, but is sceptical about the feasibility of a global portal.

I don’t think we will ever end up with one global data set that contains all the information we want to know about aid and development because it is such a vast and diverse industry. What I think we can do is invest in tools that allow people to aggregate, for research purposes, what aid is going where for what purposes.

Perhaps I’m a little at odds with Rupert on that point. I think existing global portals, though too crude, point the way. And I think that only a global comparative perspective on aid information can support the sorts of increasingly sophisticated like-for-like comparisons between development agencies that need to be made if there is to be a real ‘race to the top’ on transparency.

If there’s one general point that I took from our discussion, it was that aid transparency advocates should waste no time ruing the pointlessness of various multilateral processes and conferences, and should simply push forward on both the supply and demand sides wherever the going is good. Progress will be uneven, but peer and consumer pressure will tend to even things up.

Robin Davies is the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre. Rupert Simons will speak about progress on aid transparency in session 2(f) of the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference, on Wednesday 15 February. Publish What You Fund was accepting public submissions in connection with its Aid Transparency Index methodology review up to 3 January 2017 but remains open to additional input from any source—which can be directed to tracker@publishwhatyoufund.org.


[1] It is expected that the Aid Transparency Index will next be updated in the second half of 2017.

[2] The OECD/UNDP assessment process looked at the provision of data across three data-gathering and reporting processes, namely those associated with IATI, the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System, and the OECD’s annual Survey on Donors’ Forward Spending Plans. The idea in Busan was that by about the end of 2013 there would be a ‘a common, open standard for electronic publication’ of information on aid flows and activities. Predictably, subsequent discussions among specialists led them to conclude that it was not feasible to merge the several existing data-gathering and reporting processes.

[3] In the policy brief described here, I noted that aid to ‘developing countries, unspecified’, which is counted as bilateral aid but not attributed to individual countries, stood at close to 30% of all bilateral aid outflows from donors in 2014.

Robin Davies

Robin Davies is the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre and an Honorary Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy. He heads our program of research into global development policy. He was previously a member of AusAID’s senior executive service for a decade, both in Australia and overseas. Most recently he headed AusAID’s international programs and partnerships division. His policy and research interests include multilateral cooperation for development, development and climate change financing models and public-private partnerships for development. He is currently based in Geneva.

5 Comments

  • Robin, thank you for a carefully thought post. Just a couple of quick reactions from my monitoring role at the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation:

    – I agree that international talk shows with no action can be a waste of time and resources. However, the Nairobi high-level meeting last December served to extract internationally-agreed commitments on several dimensions, chiefly on transparency, from donors, developing countries, CSOs and foundations. Besides the 22 specific commitments under the principles of transparency and accountability, the word “transparency” is also mentioned 30 times, in other sections, denoting how horizontal this theme has become within all sorts of issues to development effectiveness. Does it matter? Probably not by themselves. Commitments are not actions. But these provide legitimacy to other actors to keep development actors accountable for their achievement: civil society organisations certainly use them to put pressure; at the Global Partnership we use them to keep parties accountable through the country-led multistakeholder monitoring processes that we carry out every other year, and reformers and innovators inside every organisation can count with that international narrative to push for much needed internal reforms in this area. A world without commitment-generating regular platforms, that’s it, without attracting political attention, would be a much more fragmented world where global standards would have a rough time to spread.

    Here a quick link to the Nairobi Outcome Document.

    – My second point is a small clarification. You mention that our OECD/UNDP report “on this and other Busan commitments […] must be considered a self-assessment,…”. Just to clarify that for most indicators that we track, the monitoring data is gathered by 81 developing countries throughout inclusive processes, and we just benefit from those country level processes. In the case of transparency, the international community agreed to present three existing transparency assessments, those of IATI and those of the OECD-DAC secretariat, in parallel. These assessments are objectively produced by the secretariats of IATI and OECD-DAC using transparent methodologies, and we only compile them for the purposes of reporting. But the evaluees (i.e. the donors) do not have a say in the scoring. In fact, as you may see in the annex tables of the 2016 progress report, most donors score relatively low in one or several of these parallel assessments.

    Although there is an overall upward trend in terms of availability, much more needs to be done. In future editions of the monitoring report, we plan to incorporate the perspective of the users, which, as you rightly indicate, are the best judges on whether the information was timely, accessible, comprehensive, good quality and useful.

    • Thanks, Alejandro, for this informative response.

      I agree multilateral conferences can function as useful platforms for promoting high-level political commitment to various actions, and to some extent the Busan conference did that. However, where such conferences are too numerous or too nebulous in their aims, there is an obvious risk that they won’t attract sufficiently high-level participants, that their declarations will recycle each other and that the commitments they secure will be safe/minor/vague/redundant. I wasn’t close enough to the Nairobi event to judge where it sat on the spectrum of usefulness but accept your judgement that it helped to keep some momentum going, particularly on aid and financial transparency.

      On the ‘self-assessment’ point, I’m familiar with the process (which I think has a lot of potential value, but is hamstrung by the narrow range of subjects on which information is collected) but I think it’s unlikely that the OECD or UNDP would allow any particularly harsh assessments to be expressed, at least where those assessments reflected badly on specific actors or groups of actors.

  • Robin, you conclude your Blog by stating that transparency advocates should push forward on both the supply and demand sides wherever the going is good. Thus, your Blog presents a demand-side opportunity to enquire about Australia’s current development initiative in Indonesian education, the $49 million Inovasi project.

    As you observe, Australia was one among many nations that made commitments at the Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011. This includes a commitment to the principal of transparency and accountability to the intended beneficiaries of co-operation, as well as to citizens, organisations, constituents and shareholders. Transparent practices form the basis for enhanced accountability, this commitment asserts.

    In light of Australia’s commitment to this principal, it is reasonable to enquire about the progress of Inovasi. DFAT and the project manager provide scant publicly available and readily accessible information about this important project. After unaccounted for delays in 2015 and early 2016, all DFAT can tell us on its website about the progress of Inovasi is summarised in 150 words. Why the silence? Where is the transparency and accountability from this limited information?

    • Yes, there’s not much information around on that rather large program, for which Palladium won the contract, other than the program design document (with provisional budget excised for no good reason, as usual) and a few announcements and advertisements for program personnel. You can at least track how much money the program is spending by looking at the relevant IATI data. Here’s a link to a saved d-portal.org query on the program, which shows that it has spent just under $400,000 at this point, and is expected to spend $6.5 million in the current financial year. For some reason, the program’s total budget, 2016-19, is given as $56.5 million, whereas DFAT’s web site shows it as $49 million.

      • It is rather telling that more than a month on from your blog Robin, and comments received, that DFAT has offered no explanation here about Inovasi, no comment on the financial discrepancy you point out, just continuing silence.

        To borrow from one of your headings, “customer pressure is not enough”.

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