The launch of the International Aid Transparency Initiative Standard in 2011 triggered a wave of excitement. The creation of a framework within which donors, nongovernmental organizations, development banks, funds and private sector contractors would commit to publishing timely, comparable data about the projects they financed or implemented aimed to shine much-needed light across the international aid chain and help the development sector provide better targeted support to beneficiaries.
Four years on from the IATI Standard and more than seven years since the launch of the initiative, IATI has, by its own admission, had little to no practical impact on the lives of development beneficiaries. With its steering committee meeting this week, many are now looking for tangible results, while others wonder whether IATI has had enough time to demonstrate progress.
Annelise Parr and Carolyn Culey, United Nations Development Program coordinator and senior policy advisor, development initiatives, respectively, at the IATI Secretariat argue it’s too early to expect a direct impact on aid. Bolstered by widespread support from the development community and a few well-publicized victories — for example, getting the United States Agency for International Development to sign up to the IATI open data standard — the initiative doesn’t seem in immediate danger of failing, yet.
Devex spoke with members of the development community to find out how IATI could make itself more useful. Indeed, a new UNDP-commissioned report into IATI’s effectiveness found that it has much work to do, not only to improve the quality and accessibility of data but developing ways those data can be used.
The slow progress appears to be largely due to IATI facing a “chicken and egg” challenge: organizations are less motivated to invest in full data reporting until they find practical applications for the overall data set, whereas the usefulness of the data set is limited until a critical mass of organizations has contributed.
Over 350 organizations now publish to IATI, and according to a 2014 snapshot, most of IATI’s 22 partner countries — seven out of 10 major donors — published good enough data for this to be imported into national systems. This indicates IATI is close to “a tipping point,” said Parr and Culey, with the volume and quality of data finally reaching a size at which progress should gain momentum.
But seven out of 10 just isn’t good enough, according to the UNDP report, which found “often important discrepancies” between IATI data and those obtained directly from donor country offices. IATA data are also “generally less reliable” than data provided by country offices.
Individual governments appear to be among the biggest culprits. France only publishes data from a selection of locations where they are active, for example, said Liz Steele, EU representative for Publish What You Fund. Other “European donors — for example Germany, France and Spain — are [also] not publishing data that is good enough to be useful,” she said.
All in all, only 47 percent of EU aid flows are visible on IATI, meaning around $4.8 billion is not, Steele noted.
European donors that publish “good” or “very good” IATI data according to PWYF’s latest EU Aid Transparency Review include the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the European Commission.
At the same time, IATI can’t be blamed for negligent government reporting, Steele stressed, adding that some major donors must “up their game.”
One solution at the government level, said Roderick Besseling, open data coordinator at Dutch NGO Cordaid, is to force every organization or donor publish to IATI.
The UNDP’s Parr and Culey agreed that this remained an issue but pointed to improvements. Around half of Busan development effectiveness endorsers, for example, are now publishing to 90 percent or more of the core fields in the IATA Standard.
Respondents to UNDP’s review of IATI said the initiative should find better uses for IATI data, rather than “getting as many donors as possible to publish.”
“From the few hundred publishers that publish to IATI, I would be surprised if more than 20 had something in a data file that you could actually use,” acknowledged Cordaid’s Besseling.
Still, he acknowledged by using IATI data “pretty much to its maximum capacity,” Cordaid has been able to improve its own fundraising, communications and programming, though there is still room for growth.
Users, potential users and some stakeholders also said that IATI’s public-facing websites, including the registry, are “not sufficiently user friendly and are difficult to access, navigate and understand.”
Most data so far track financial flows rather than impact. Again, this is mostly the fault of publishers.
Although the standard provides “added value” fields in which publishers can record information about the results of projects or programs, only two publishers are using these for more than 70 percent of their activities, according to the UNDP’s Parr and Culey.
Publishing more data on the outcomes of projects would make IATI “extremely powerful,” said Kate Gannon, program officer, PPA at Plan U.K., which is currently looking at how it could do this itself.
The impact of complex projects with soft outcomes — for example changing attitudes — would be difficult to measure, Gannon acknowledged. However, for health projects, she said organizations could provide more concrete data, for example how many vaccinations or mosquito nets had been distributed, or the extent to which cases of targeted illnesses had been reduced.
The U.K.’s Department for International Development currently requires NGOs to report to IATI every three months — a frequency that “might be appropriate for some slow-onset responses,” noted Sarah Johns, transparency adviser for U.K. NGO network Bond.
However, encouraging publishers to increase the frequency of reporting could be game-changing for IATI’s usefulness, especially in humanitarian crises.
More granular, real-time data before, during and after a humanitarian crisis could create a moving picture of who is working on what and where, helping donors and NGOs coordinate a faster and more effective response, she said.
To address this, IATI is working on an extension to make the standard “fit for purpose” for humanitarian crises. “Once agreed, we would like donors to commit to updating their IATI data on a daily basis in fast-onset humanitarian crises,” said UNDP’s Parr and Culey.
IATI has already helped a significant proportion of its members increase the timeliness of their data in “normal” times, they noted. Nearly half of IATI members now publish data on their development cooperation at least quarterly, with some publishing monthly.
There has been less progress in publishing forward-looking data though. Only three IATI members are providing full forward-looking data, while just a quarter provided any at all.
The UNDP report author Ian Davies made a poignant admission in his introduction: Before being hired to conduct the study, he had never heard of IATI, despite working as a development consultant for 15 years.
One of the report’s key conclusions was that IATI is not yet sufficiently known, particularly in countries benefiting most from the data it works to make available.
Cordaid’s Besseling also flagged a need for IATI to improve public outreach. Showcasing practical examples of what IATI can do for NGOs who find themselves having to do more with less money and who could benefit from using “IATI not just [as] a financial transparency tool, but a tool to improve their own efficiency and effectiveness,” he said.
According to a recent USAID study, government officials and activists in Bangladesh, Ghana and Zambia said they wanted more data. However, they were not aware of how much was already available, PWYF’s Steele noted.
Some donor governments and multilaterals, however, are finding IATI fits well with pledges to improve transparency.
“[Governments like the U.K. and Sweden] made promises about being open and value for money and making sure they were getting the best results,” said Craig Fagan, head of global policy, advocacy and research at Transparency International. “Now they have the tool.”
When they are made aware of IATI, recipient country governments can check that pledged aid can be accounted for, giving them “a much better picture of whether the numbers are adding up,” he added.
More engagement with initiatives like the Joined Up Data Alliance, of which IATI is a member, would help IATI progress faster.
“It’s about bringing these open standards together to find common solutions for their own specific problems,” said PWYF’s Steele. “So rather than the data being kept in silos, users can have a more holistic view by being able to use mix, match and mash up all the data from different initiatives.”
IATI told Devex that it is working on this issue and IATI steering committee members endorsed a statement of collaboration with other global data standards during its last meeting in June 2015.
To this end, Cordaid is keen to explore other data sets and use them in combination with IATI. For example, it took data from the World Risk Index, a German index that measures countries’ vulnerability to natural disasters, and used a program to recreate it in map form, with countries colored red, orange or yellow to indicate how at risk they were. It then used its own IATI data set to plot on the map Cordaid projects related to disaster alleviation.
Similarly, the U.K. imported its IATI data into Myanmar’s Mohinga portal, while Madagascar is using its d-portal.org to provide a country-level view of IATI data, to compare with in-country aid management and help identify gaps.
IATI’s Standard has “amazing potential” to help the sector respond to post-2015 challenges, Transparency International’s Fagan said. To achieve this, however, it should broaden its scope and perhaps even rebrand from a focus on humanitarian aid to a focus on development cooperation.
Ultimately, the financial, human, technical and political resources already ploughed into IATI mean the initiative is unlikely to end up in the “dustbin of glamorous and great ideas that didn’t take off,” said Fagan. “We need to make sure that’s the case. Everyone has a role to play.”
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