Don't just show data — make it work to improve aid

Participating at an open data event. Photo by: Menno van der Horst / CC BY

Publishing aid data is nothing new: more and more donors and implementers are doing it, there seems to be a broad consensus — except among some emerging donors like China in Africa — that it’s the right thing to do, and transparency efforts are much appreciated by nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

But the tougher question is: Are we publishing data the right way to truly make development work more effective and deliver value for money?

Not quite, according to an expert from a development research and innovation institution.

“Implementing development programs effectively, efficiently and sustainably can’t happen without transparent aid information,” Samantha Custer, policy outreach and communications director at AidData, told Devex. “Governments and donors use this information to improve coordination, reduce duplication and maximize the impact of their investments.”

Custer added: “It’s not enough to publish vast amounts of aid information on the Web — the quality of that information matters and local actors often lack the capacity to use this in their daily work.”

While stakeholders seem to agree that everyone benefits from the whole aid transparency idea because of the opportunity to “identify gaps in service delivery and hold [governments and donors] accountable for results,” the process can also be “liberating” and “empowering” for them, she said.

Part of the problem why aid, despite numerous studies and initiatives, is not as effective as donor agencies would hope, is the numerous gaps not only in publishing data, but also in operationalizing these pieces of information.

This “spotty information” happens in a wide range of sectors, with certain types of aid remaining underreported including humanitarian assistance (due to quick turnaround), monitoring and evaluation data, as well as other types of funding flows that “aren’t taken into account” like remittances and domestic public expenditure.

Capacity, incentives

Despite the proliferation of information, aid data is still not as transparent, accessible and — to a point, reachable — as everyone would hope.

Among the issues that need to be addressed so aid data can become a catalyst for change and not just a soup bowl of numbers and data sets, transparency and accessibility are the most obvious — but not the only ones.

For instance, Custer pointed out how stakeholders need to understand and apply the lessons that they get out of the data they just accessed to make the whole point valid.

“We have to help [them] make meaning of data. How do you make CSOs, the media and local universities more aware of what data is out there, and more comfortable using it?” the specialist said, adding that this can be done through collaboration with “infomediaries” or groups that are in a position to take data and make it understandable to ordinary people.

Another challenge is incentives, which right now is not given much attention.

Incentives should be given to stakeholders for them to be motivated to change their behavior because according to Custer, “if we don’t get this piece right, open data and open aid becomes a very nice thing to do, but doesn’t actually produce change or improve development outcomes.”

It’s also critical to look at the whole process of aid — from disbursement, procurement and delivery to evaluation and monitoring — while focusing on specific areas and communities.

“We realize the need to look at other pieces of the chain,” Custer concluded. “Understanding where and to whom money is allocated throughout the procurement and contracting process is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Read more:

Aid transparency index 2013: Leaders and laggards

Why aid transparency matters in the post-2015 framework

Hacking into Canada's aid data

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.