Time to make aid transparency actionable, says new campaign chief

Gary Forster, new CEO of Publish What You Fund.

LONDON — The new CEO of a major aid transparency group says the movement needs to change its ways, and make its data more user-friendly to encourage civil society groups to hold donors to account, during a new strategy launch Wednesday.

In July, Gary Forster took over as head of Publish What You Fund, which was established at the 2008 high-level meeting on aid effectiveness in Accra, Ghana, in response to concerns that information about development aid was scarce and difficult to access. It was set up alongside the International Aid Transparency Initiative to make aid spending by different agencies more transparent and comparable.

Ten years on, while he is proud of what the London-based organization has achieved with a modest staff of less than 10 and a budget of around £600,000 ($789,162), Forster said the transparency sector needs to pay more attention to engaging the people — policymakers, civil society groups, citizens, and journalists — who are meant to be using the data.

“We’ve pushed donors ... into improving their [transparency] scores and that in turn is improving the sector,” he said. “But transparency for transparency’s sake isn’t getting us anywhere … We need to attach meaning to it … We’ve got to start looking at this more from a user perspective.”

The group is best known for publishing the biennial aid transparency index, which this year assessed and ranked 45 aid agencies spending $140 billion of overseas development assistance based on the openness of their data. But Publish What You Fund does more than “name and shame” the worst donors, staff also work with agencies to help them get better at tracking and publishing their information.

Now, Forster said, more needs to be done on the user side. “Originally the spirit of the movement was about [giving] citizens, journalists, and local NGOs access to aid information and [how] they can use it to do good. But what it seems to have become is much more publisher focused,” he said. While it was assumed that users would come and use the data once it was available, in reality, this has not been the case.

Part of the problem is that users don’t have confidence in the data, and it isn’t always user-friendly or timely. Forster wants to turn that on its head and refocus the work of his NGO on helping users hold donors to account — a key part of the new strategy — by tracking their funding against money pledged to global causes.

Currently, most tracking tends to happen retrospectively, Forster said, with NGOs going back to try and see whether donors delivered on their pledges. Reporting systems can make it difficult to get an accurate picture of what has been spent and by whom, and double counting of funds is not uncommon. To help address these issues, Publish What You Fund is in discussions with a number of civil society groups to track pledged money “live as it flows through the system,” he said.

“Transparency for transparency’s sake isn’t getting us anywhere … We need to attach meaning to it.”

— Gary Forster, CEO, Publish What You Fund

A second part of the strategy will look at broadening the organization’s focus to keep up with a changing donor landscape by including more development finance institutions, private finance, pooled funds, and humanitarian funding flows.

The third pillar will focus on improving the effectiveness of the transparency sector as a whole. That will include providing regular feedback to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, from which Publish What You Fund draws much of its data. It is one reason why the NGO opted not to renew its position on the fund’s board when the former CEO stepped down earlier this year, preferring instead to act as a “critical friend,” Forster said.

“What we can do best ... is speak on behalf of ourselves as a user and on behalf of other users,” he said. But Forster knows his own organization also has work to do. He acknowledged the aid transparency index “isn’t perfect” and “needs to be constantly improved to ensure we don’t accidentally incentivize the wrong kind of behavior with publishers,” he said. The process was reformed 18 months ago and the NGO will stick to “roughly the same methodology” for the next index, set for 2020.

“But in the background, we will be talking to people and thinking about index 2.0 and how do we strengthen it and address the issues we know exist,” he said.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.