DAKAR, 21 March 2013 (IRIN) - Aid watchdogs have been pushing for more transparent governance and information on financial flows, but just how much progress has been made over the past couple of years?
The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), born out of the 2008 Accra aid effectiveness conference, and concretized at the Busan aid effectiveness conference in 2012, is one initiative pushing governments to be more open about where their aid money is going.
IATI is seen by many as the most concrete sign of donor progress on transparency to date. By signing up to IATI, donors agree to report timely details of their aid flows electronically in a common format that can be easily used by aid recipients, following years of discussion as to how to equalize the power dynamic of “givers” and “receivers” whereby the latter often had very little information about what aid was coming their way and when.
There is mounting evidence that giving citizens greater access to information and participation can improve lives. Better quality and more widely shared aid information enables better allocation of resources to reduce poverty and more informed decision-making by governments, among other benefits, notes Development Initiatives’ advocacy adviser Andrew Palmer.
For instance, following the publication of budget information on village walls in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, citizen audits exposed US$25 million in fraud and theft, one fifth of which has been recovered.
As of this week, 22 donors and 19 civil society organizations (disbursers of aid money) are publishing to the IATI standard; a further 14 organizations - both donors and civil society organizations - say they will do so by 2015, while 42 others have outlined schedules noting what they will do to implement it over coming years.
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has been a leader in pushing aid transparency, in December 2012 outlining six goals to improve accountability which were widely welcomed by aid watchdogs.
Publish What You Fund (PWYF) recently assessed donor commitment to IATI. Donors can choose to publish data in just the basic fields - for instance who they are, the recipient, type of aid given, or can go much further: noting whether aid is tied or untied, giving the results of the project to give a sense of the impact of the aid money.
Overall, most donors should be commended for their progress, said PWYF spokesperson Nicole Valentinuzzi, but this is just the first step. Only once they are reporting in all fields, can money be traced through the system, including on project evaluations and reports from recipients on whom they gave the money to, and when.
“There’s a lot of big picture right now. Only once we have more of the reporting fields sorted out, can we trace the money through the system,” Valentinuzzi told IRIN.
As IATI and other aid monitoring systems gain traction, much of the information that is still used to inform decision-making in the aid sector remains out of date.
According to Development Initiatives’ advocacy adviser Andrew Harper, to give but one example: on average data from developing countries on the prevalence of extreme poverty is nearly five years old; data on hunger is four years old, and data on education and HIV/AIDS at least three years old, he notes.
Many of the emerging donors (Brazil, China, South Africa and others) are not yet participating in the transparency debate, as they see themselves more as South -South cooperators rather than donors, says Valentinuzzi. “But they remain very much in our sights, as do non-traditional aid flows such as climate finance,” she said.
A 2011 PWYF report found that the Chinese government publishes less data about its overseas aid spending than Western donors, “but more than is commonly thought”, concluding that information provision is evolving quickly in China.
Development Initiatives will soon look into whether the IATI standard can capture data on south-south cooperation, using Colombia as an entry point.
IATI is in its early days but its impact is already being felt.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where half of the government budget is made up of aid, the planning, finance and budget ministers each received different sets of incomplete information on donor flows. They are now using IATI to combine the information they receive so they are working to the same picture, according to research by Development Initiatives.
Likewise in Rwanda, where aid made up 20 percent of gross national income in 2009, the government is using IATI to feed more consistent, accurate information into their donor database to help their planning.
The information is also useful for watchdogs. “A beneficiary won’t sit and analyse this data in a tent. But it is part of the equation, and it helps other watchdogs to scrutinize the data,” said Jean Verheyden of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Open data standards are really important to make our data comparable to others. This makes us more transparent and hopefully our data will improve as a result of more scrutiny,” said Julie Thompson, manager of the Financial Tracking Service (FTS), managed OCHA, which tracks all international humanitarian commitments and started to do so in 1992.
FTS is now publishing all data, including OCHA data, to IATI standards. OCHA joined other UN agencies (UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UN-HABITAT, UNOPs, and WFP) as a signatory to IATI in late 2012.
As the deadline for the 2015 Millennium Development Goals approach, development leaders are discussing what will come next. Development Initiatives has made the case for a standalone goal to increase access to, and use of, information to accelerate sustainable development.
More open information would support the governance and development outcomes of other post-2015 goals, and would make access to information a goal in its own right.
“There is broad consensus that governance, transparency, participation and empowerment should be core components of the post-2015 narrative... but we need a practical way to measure these components,” said Development Initiatives. “The key question is how to do this.”
Post-MDG goal on information targets:
1. Right to information enshrined in legislation
2. Detailed information on entitlements and government services available online
3. Government budget and expenditure data publicly available online to common open standard including transaction level data, geo-coded where possible
4. Private sector disclosure of tax and royalty payments
5. Investment in statistical capacity
6. Universal access to mobile phone and broadband coverage
Who else is pushing for greater aid transparency?
The Open Knowledge Foundation pushes for more open government information.
The Open Government Partnership, founded in 2011 and now with 57 government and civil society members, pushes for more open governance to fight corruption and boost accountability.
Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative tries to monitor financial flows of extracted resources.