In almost every corner of the philanthropic world, transparency appears to be the buzzword these days. Foundations and donors often talk about their efforts to more strategically catalyze change and make an impact, however, while they have great stories to share, the quantifiable outcomes of their efforts are difficult to fully measure and further, in many cases, best practices that may potentially help others become more effective are not shared at all.
So what’s happening in the world of government aid, where there has also been a lot of transparency talk, especially around the looming Millennium Development Goals?
If you were at the Opening Up Aid: Better Data, Better Use forum at the Brookings Institute last week, then you already realize that aid transparency can be summed up in a four letter word.
International Aid Transparency Initiative
IATI stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a bold undertaking that is in its fifth year and continues to push efforts to publish open data in a standard that allows government agencies to tell their story.
The forum was about promoting the progress that has been made during IATI’s five-year period and to display the 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI), an online index launched jointly by Oxfam America and Publish What You Fund that measures aid transparency from some of the world’s leading aid agencies in the form of a ranking system that demonstrates which organizations are most and least transparent.
The ATI is a colorful chart that displays the name of the donor and their score. Clicking on the chart brings up the donor profile information and its relevance to IATI. There is specific detail about the scoring, which contains data about what the donor has made available and its score there as well. Users can filter their searches by organization size, type, or initiative. This is all available online, and can be accessed by anyone for free.
Information published on a quarterly basis in extensible markup language (XML) format, is machine-readable and according to David Hall-Matthews, Managing Director of Publish What You Fund, the best format because it is the “only format that is both comparable and accessible.”
Hall-Matthews, who gave a rousing address about the importance and push for agencies to become more transparent, talked about a data revolution, clearly excited about the potential and commitment many of the groups are making to publish useful data on aid activities.
And the Highest Ranking Aid Transparency Agency is…
He also had the pleasure of announcing the top ranked agency so far, which happens to be the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. based foreign aid agency that since 2004, has been providing assistance in the fight against global poverty. According to Publish What You Fund, which ranked 67 donor organizations, MCC, scored 88.9% overall, narrowly beating organizations like GAVI Alliance, Department for International Development, and United Nations Development Program which also scored high marks. The scoring was based on organizations that are providing “large amounts of accessible, timely, comparable, and comprehensive information about their aid”.
This information is useful to people like Hector Corrales, Director of International Cooperation at the Republic of Honduras’ Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, who made a compelling case when he talked about mutual accountability; a coming together of donors and countries, and the need for the data to be published quarterly so that it could create a friendly competition among the agencies while also reminding them about the areas that need to be improved.
Honduras, an active member of IATI, recently launched an aid management platform, which contains information on all aid activity, including government data. Mr. Corrales praised IATI for its efforts while indicating it was imperative for the “long term transformation of development actors in the field”. After all, in order to be really effective and impactful, having good, searchable, timely, comprehensive data is not only important, it’s vital. He was pleased to announce that Honduras is committed to IATI and its standard.
Aid Transparency Advice and Best Practices
There was also a panel on transparency that featured a list of high-profile aid agencies that are involved in everything from capacity building, development planning, economic growth, political reform to budget and policy. The panel, moderated by Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan USA, included Caroline Anstey, Managing Director of World Bank; Tony Pipa, Deputy Assistant for the U.S. Agency for International Development; Robert Goldberg, Director, Office of U.S. and Foreign Assistance Resources, U.S. Department of State; the aforementioned Hector Corrales; and Sheila Herrling, V.P., Department of Policy and Evaluation, Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Herrling, who was thrilled that MCC climbed from a 9th place ranking to the top of the standings shared how they were able to accomplish the feat along with some best practices:
- Declare that you’re going to be transparent and have the political will to be able to overcome fear because you have to be willing to answer questions about your own data and that takes time.
- MCC uses data to make decisions on everything so the realization they could not access their own data, coupled with a push from external audiences asking for better data made their decision to publish better information an easy one.
- The learning that can be made possible by the volume of data that can be shared in the information space is an important element.
Most of the guests on the panel shared their best practice of having a good group of technical and policy teams working together and agreed that political will and the hunger to see transparency of aid data improve are all important aspects of keeping this movement alive and growing.
To sum this all up in the words of the Senior Fellow of Brookings and the introductory speaker, George Ingram, “This is a small but important element in the data revolution.”
Yinebon Iniya is manager of international data relations at the Foundation Center.