Opinion: Why data engagement is key to inclusive, transparent development

We need to transition from a concept of data use to one of data engagement, says Publish What You Fund CEO Gary Forster. Photo by: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The transparency of international aid is more important than ever. As large quantities of aid are quickly reallocated to deal with the COVID-19 emergency, the decisions and actions taken should be open to public scrutiny.

Impending recessions are forcing governments to reevaluate their official development assistance budgets. With resources stretched, aid must be targeted as accurately and spent as effectively as possible.

Aid transparency facilitates information sharing among donors and with partner governments, it is a key way to improve the efficiency of resource allocation, coordination of the response and for donors to learn from one another’s interventions. Proactive, timely, comprehensive, and open data on aid flows is also critical to allow public oversight and accountability.

The “2020 Aid Transparency Index,” launched today, brings with it some good news — more and better data overall — and some bad news — persistent lack of impact evidence and a number of major agencies lagging behind. And there is an emerging challenge for all of us looking to make sure greater transparency delivers not only more effective development, but also serves to build a trusting and inclusive approach to how development is done.

Breaking down the data

The index shows significant improvement in donors’ overall transparency compared to 2018. Eleven donors are now in the “very good” category, an increase of four from 2018. The number in “good” increased by two, to 15. This means that over half of the 47 assessed donors are now ranked as “good” or “very good.”

In real terms, this means an increase in the quantity, quality, and timeliness of aid data now being shared by a broad cross-section of the world’s major aid agencies. To see individual agencies make significant gains in such a short period of time, and such diverse organizations as development finance institutions and humanitarian actors all scoring well is an illustration of what’s possible when transparency is valued and institutionalized.

The 2020 index has seen improvements in the publication of project information compared with 2018. However, there are persistent gaps in publication of performance data. While more donors are now publishing objectives, only a minority are publishing results of their projects.

Fewer still are publishing project reviews and evaluations. Without this information, stakeholders monitoring donor projects have no way to gauge the effectiveness and value of aid spending, assess the impact of projects or to extract learning from successful and unsuccessful projects.

With the Sustainable Development Goals targets just around the corner, and some slipping out of reach, it is of paramount importance that we allocate aid to the kinds of activities that have proven and replicable impact.

Aid transparency too top down

Beyond the index, the Publish What You Fund team engages on a broad range of transparency research and advocacy efforts across topics including humanitarian action, gender data, and the transparency of DFIs. Increasingly, our work is highlighting the extent to which aid transparency has become too top down; a Northern construct focused on the publication of large data sets at HQ level.

We recognize that we’ve arguably been part of the problem. The index rewards the publication of large volumes of timely, comparable, and good quality comprehensive data. It doesn’t reward efforts by donors to ensure that this data is used at country level by agency staff either to support their own decision-making processes or to engage with stakeholders, including partner governments, and civil society organizations.

As a result, we have donor country offices that are unaware of the wealth of data and information that exists, and stakeholders on the ground who perceive certain actors as untransparent despite their commendable publishing practices at the HQ level.

In such a situation, with no one reviewing the numbers, there are no feedback loops, so quality issues in the data can remain for long periods without being identified and remedied.

From data use to engagement

We need to transition from a concept of data use to one of data engagement. To date, there has been an underlying assumption of “if you build it they will come/if you publish it they will use.”

Our own research, “With Publication Comes Responsibility,” identifies the need for aid agencies to use their own data for strategic planning and local engagement. Working with our partners, we have seen firsthand the variety of stakeholders that seek aid data ranging from CSOs and elected representatives to think tanks and central banks.

But let us separate out data use from data engagement. Data use assumes the existence of a useable data set that meets the need of every type of user and implies individuals or organizations with the agency, ability, and incentives to identify, analyze, and utilize data. Data use also suggests a distant, hands-off relationship between data producer and end user.

When we talk about data engagement, we’re talking about reducing that distance. We’re talking about donor agencies meeting with their counterparts, using the data as a basis for a discussion, talking about planned activities and ongoing successes and failures.

That’s how we identify data needs, that’s how we build trust between partners, that’s how we identify mistakes, that’s how we have evidence-informed development decisions.

Ultimately, we all want local partners and implementers to own their own development — and data engagement is an important way to enable that.

About the author

  • Gary Forster

    Gary Forster joined Publish What You Fund, the global campaign for aid and development transparency, in July 2018. With a background in public health and logistics he was previously the chief executive of the INGO Transaid for six years. Gary is currently the chair-elect of Charity Finance Group, a sector body with more than 1,400 charities in membership, collectively managing over £22 billion which represents almost one third of the sector's income.