The surprising missing link in the aid transparency chain: Recipients

Written by Terence Wood

If you’ve got a bit of prior knowledge, high speed internet, and a decent store of time and patience, now is a good time to have an interest in aid data. If you want a simple aid overview, either for a particular donor or recipient country you can whip over to Aidflows. If it’s details you need, why not have a dig amongst the OECD DAC’s CRS database? Or you could try making use of the more user-friendly, but still only in beta, Aid Data database. If you’re one of those people who thinks that quality of aid, rather than quantity, is what really matters, you can get donor data from the Center for Global Development’s QUODA database. And if you think good development policy is about more than aid, you ought to take a look at the Center for Global Development’s commitment to development database, which integrates information on aid, trade, migration, investment, the environment, security and technology (phew!).

It’s great. Or at least it’s great if you’ve got: prior knowledge, high speed internet, time — and patience. But if you don’t have all, or at least some, of these attributes in reasonable quantities, the great aid transparency revolution is likely to be of considerably less use to you.

This is a significant shortcoming and something that restricts the potential for increased transparency to actually improve the world of aid. The problem is simple: in most aid recipient countries people living in poverty don’t have regular access to the internet. And, even when they do, they don’t have access to the assistance that they’d need to dig through the detailed aid information in the OECD DAC’s CRS database. So aid information may well be out there, but practically it’s still out of reach. Subsequently, while an aid transparency revolution is taking place, there’s a missing link: the people who depend on aid for their welfare.

This is something that represents a missed opportunity in resolving a long-recognised issue with aid. The issue being that, too often, citizens in aid recipient countries have little or no idea how much aid their government receives, or the specific causes that the money is supposed to be devoted to. Because of this it’s more difficult for citizens to hold elites to account. In democracies this is a potentially potent form of accountability and yet in the absence of information, it’s rarely realised. Instead, aid donors for the most part continue to rely on their own conditionalities when it comes to trying to ensure that aid is spent appropriately.

It wouldn’t be a difficult problem to resolve. All it would take is all the donors in a particular country to pool information on their aid spending into a central database and then use readily accessible media (newspapers, TV, the radio) to let people in that country know the total quantity of aid and its intended purposes. Tailored information could also be given to civil society organisations. In the space of a few simple actions, people living in aid recipient countries would be in a much better position to do their bit in ensuring that aid money is well spent.

This wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be a difficult initiative for donors (particularly OECD DAC member donors). Harmonisation would be required in the form of shared information and given that donors have been talking about harmonisation for years, this shouldn’t be hard. (If it is, you’d have to conclude that the Paris Declaration isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.) In addition to shared information, the initiative would require a small amount of funds to pay for broadcasting time, and some staff to work with civil society groups. In proportion to the total aid flowing into most developing countries, the cost would be tiny.

I’m certainly not the first person to have made this suggestion (Nicolas van de Walle called for something similar over five years ago) and yet, as far as I’m aware, despite the current enthusiasm for transparency, it is still not high on the priority list of donors.

Why this is the case, I really don’t know. Maybe it’s been tried before and it failed? Maybe there are practical challenges I haven’t thought of? Maybe donors really aren’t that keen on genuine transparency after all? Maybe. Although I think the most likely reason is that in the faddish world of aid it simply hasn’t been promoted hard enough.

If that’s the case, then consider this blog post as advocacy in action. Donors, what are you waiting for? You say you support transparency, you say you support democracy, and you say you support accountability. Well, if this is true, then close this missing link in the aid transparency chain and let your data flow. Provide it to the people who depend on aid the most and provide it through media they can access. Do this and you’ll be doing your bit in promoting transparency, and in aiding the people who depend on aid to actually have their say.

[Update: Having double checked I’m now not so sure that Nicolas van de Walle did actually call for the type of aid transparency mentioned here. Nevertheless, I’m certainly not the first to suggest the idea.]

Terence Wood is a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid programme.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. He heads our program of research into Australian and New Zealand aid. Terence’s research interests include aid policy, the politics of aid, and governance in developing countries. He has recently finished his PhD, studying voter behaviour in the Solomon Islands elections. Prior to commencing PhD study Terence worked for the New Zealand government aid program.

8 Comments

  • Thanks Claudia – an excellent comment.

    The other thing I think worth noting is that, in in many countries, most aid from government aid agencies flows through the partner government.

    To my mind the main reason for wanting information on this type of aid flow to be pubicised is that it helps citizens in aid recipient countries hold their own governments to account. (Which is a type of feedback but perhaps a little different from what we think about when we talk about aid project feedback).

    What would be interesting would be to see how resistant (or not) aid recipient governments might be to this type of transparency. They quite probably would be (at least in more poorly governed countries) which could be a potential hurdle. But as no one really seems to have pushed this yet, we don’t know. And it at least seems worth a try.

  • Thank you Terence for your post! I feel very much “at home” with this discussion. You are right, why on earth is aid transparency at project level, accountability towards beneficiaries not done? Take the example of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The whole process is very encouraging on the one hand – donors agree an international standard to publish more detailed and timely information. But the standard is far from providing “full disclosure” at project level. It does not demand information, that would allow citizens at project level to know what exactly is going on in a project. Even this transparency standard is a big challenge for donors. At the outset of IATI there was a workstream on accessibility, which was supposed to assure that information published according to the IATI standard would actually reach citizens in partner countries. There has not been much progress in this workstream – partly because donors see their responsibility limited to providing the data.

    I think transparency at beneficiary level involves two major challenges.
    1) For transparency to be relevant and useful at beneficiary level and to encourage feedback it would have to be far more comprehensive than e.g. IATI. So transparency at this level is more difficult and demands more courage for openness. For donors, tax payers in donor countries and researchers general information about a project may suffice. For citizens at project level details matter.

    2) If detailed information at project level were given, citizens could provide detailed feedback. But how can such feedback be incorporated into existing project procedures? What if feedback challenges the project policy – is a project manager willing and able to change a project policy? What would happen to scheduled disbursements? Critical feedback may upset a smooth running system and cause a lot of additional work and hazzle.

    Aid transparency at beneficiary level is only the first step in creating a new culture of accountability. If donors are not willing to change the way they work and to allow citizens’ feedback to have an impact on their processes, it is understandable why they are not keen on doing the first step.

  • Thanks Chris,

    I definitely agree with you here. Better information flows are only necessary and not sufficient for improved accountability. And much more work also needs to be done in the areas that you suggest. Thanks for providing links to what sound like a range of very interesting activities and organisations.

    The particular frustration I have, which provoked this post, is that providing better information on aid to recipients is both a sina qua non for accountability (which everyone is supposedly into these days); and something that ought to be very easy for government aid agencies to do. And yet it remains way down the list of priorities of most government aid agencies. For the life of me I can’t figure out why this is the case…

  • Thanks for this post Terence.

    I think the challenge is to join the formal more top down processes and the informal process more bottom up and emergent processes which are already working on this issue.

    There is some great work going on for example in Kenya of NGOs supporting ongoing monitoring of MDGs (see http://www.devex.com/en/articles/5-months-after-mdg-summit-citizen-tracking-mechanism-is-launched-in-kenya) in this case supported by the UN Millenium Campaign.

    Civil society groups like Twaweza (http://twaweza.org/) are playing a key intermediary role in supporting ‘citizen agency’ by providing people with information between communities and official agenceies and in so doing enhancing their ability to hold governments to account.

    In PNG the National Economic and Fiscal Commission (http://www.nefc.gov.pg/) is doing a great job in providing the public with information on provincial income and what it would cost for provinces to provide basic health & education services – and the discrepancy between the two.

    Australian NGOs have been also trying to share learning about how they are trying to encourage feedback from the communities they seek to benefit (see http://www.acfid.asn.au/resources/promoting-voice-and-choice), and how they might do this better.

    As you suggest the challenge is to make the join between transparently reported aid provided by aid agencies – directly or through governments – with community based feedback systems which provide some assessment of whether that aid is leading to more drugs in clinics, more books in schools and better provision of services.

    Some of the pieces of the jigsaw are already in place at different levels, we now need some imagination and creativity in putting those pieces together. The general push to improve feedback to aid agencies (see http://ngoperformance.org/related-initiatives/feedback-examples/ or http://www.owen.org/blog/4018 or http://www.keystoneaccountability.org/services/feedbacksystems) is an important part of this agenda.

    So yes lets get all donors – including NGOs – to be more transparent but lets also support at the same time those processes that are already in place to provide that information to those that aid agencies seek to benefit, as well as strengthening their voice in assessing how effective that aid is.

    Chris

  • Hi Matt,

    I agree – donors themselves may not be the best people to get info to aid recipients. That’s why I suggest working with civil society and using the media.

    I also agree that – first things first – donors need to be more timely in reporting aid data. It drives me nuts that, here in 2011, the most recent aid data I can get is only provisional 2009 data. Having said that, I’m not sure that DFiD’s monthly data releases (as opposed to timely annual or biannual releases) really adds anything. Actually, I’m inclined to think they may have gone over the apex of the ‘aid transparency laffer curve’. And might be better investing resources currently devoted to monthly reporting in areas that means that aid recipients can access their data better.

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the link…

  • You may be interested to know about The Listening Project (http://www.cdainc.com/cdawww/project_profile.php?pid=LISTEN&pname=Listening%20Project).

    It’s a systematic exploration of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the recipient end of international assistance efforts. Since 2005, 130 international and local organizations have participated and contributed more than 400 staff members to the Listening Teams that held conversations with nearly 6,000 people.

    You can read a summary of their key findings here: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/09/02/initial-findings-listening-project/

  • @devpolicy hmm, yes. And if its not transparent aid, don’t acknowledge it. An incentive for Aid transparency.

  • Terence,

    Thanks for a great post. You are right to highlight the importance of getting aid information to recipients, and elsewhere at Virtual Economics (here, here and here) there are illustrations of how better information could improve aid effectiveness.

    But we may also be getting ahead of ourselves on the aid transparency chain. You are right that more data is available, but it is often old data and for commitments rather than disbursements. So the first thing is to get aid agencies to share up to date information, based upon an international standard–for example DFID now publishes monthly data and many donors have signed up to IATI.

    In terms of getting this information to recipients, I agree that donors have a responsibility to be transparent. But it is not clear that aid agencies are always the best information intermediaries. This might be a function that civil society organizations play, by mashing (collating) data and using a variety of networks and forms of media.

    Another reason why it is important for civil society to play this role is because aid flows are only one funding source, for example governments’ own spending is often much larger. If we are concerned about improving accountability more generally and putting service delivery on a sustainable footing, then perhaps public expenditure transparency this is the bigger prize. School funding in Uganda is the oft-cited example. Nigeria’s OPEN initiative, which actively involved NGOs in monitoring the spending of debt relief gains is another.

    Donors can help by setting an example on aid transparency, encouraging governments to be more open and supporting (funding) civil society organizations as infomediaries.

    Matt

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