US should set bar higher on aid transparency — AidData

    A young girl with a baby in tow receives packets of cloth from a humanitarian aid personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan. A global campaign for aid transparency aims to push agencies to provide comparable, accessible and uniform data, and the United States is especially called to set the standards higher. Photo by: isafmedia / CC BY

    Just how transparent is U.S. aid?

    Foreign assistance from the United States is scattered all over different government agencies, adding many layers of complexity in making sure they talk to each other to provide the kind of data that is comparable, accessible and uniform.

    At the crux of the discussion is the need for the U.S. to set the bar higher, Brad Parks, co-executive director at U.S.-based partnership AidData, tells Devex. Agencies should report data in a uniform, timely fashion, and not have to be prodded to report data beyond what is required.

    But transparency initiatives, he says, should not stop at putting data out there. The information should help civil society and citizens make sense of the world they live in by providing their feedback.

    Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Parks about U.S. transparency initiatives and why a big push is needed:

    What is your assessment of U.S. aid transparency initiatives? What can you say about the collaboration of each agency in terms of making sure they all share their data and their data is comparable? What are the concerns you see and how should U.S. aid agencies address these concerns?

    Some agencies are more transparent than others. Rated as the most transparent among US government agencies providing development assistance by Publish What You Fund’s 2012 Aid Transparency Index, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has received well-deserved praise for releasing its impact assessments on compact activities. USAID, PEPFAR and Treasury were rated above average compared to other donors worldwide, but lower than their MCC counterpart. All of the agencies have substantial room for improvement, however, in making information at the project, country and organizational levels more accessible.

    Pursuing interoperability, but with flexibility for innovation. Information on development assistance is most beneficial for transparency if it is comparable. This enables policymakers or citizens to capture a complete picture of US foreign assistance, but also identify commonalities and differences between donors. To achieve this, U.S. government agencies should be identifying standardized formats for their data, and work towards making the same types of information available. There is also a need to maintain space for innovators that are willing to do more.

    How do you see the progress of the United States progress on the International Aid Transparency Initiative? Where should the U.S. do more to make sure progress is on track?

    In launching the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and releasing OMB’s Guidance on the Collection of Foreign Assistance Data, the U.S. has taken two critical steps forward in strengthening aid transparency and accountability. Beyond this initial foundation, there is still substantial opportunity for U.S. agencies to enhance not only the quantity of the development finance data they share, but also its quality and accessibility.

    Set the bar higher. Minimum transparency standards influence the extent of information that government agencies share publicly. The U.S. should set high expectations for the types of information that agencies are expected to make accessible, as they are unlikely to volunteer data beyond what they are required to provide. For example, reporting the sub-national locations of activities and specific purposes of funding makes it possible to more effectively track the distribution and impact of assistance, but not all agencies currently provide this information.

    Encourage agencies to make the jump. Positive peer pressure can be a powerful accountability mechanism to incentivize progress. Indexes created by think-tanks and advocacy groups, such as the Center for Global Development and Brooking’s Quality of ODA or the Aid Transparency Index produced by Publish What Your Fund, are already providing an important service in assessing donor transparency. The U.S. can, and should, be more proactive in using such information to provoke a “race to the top” by rewarding higher performing agencies.

    Aid transparency is also aimed at enhancing targeting and foster better programming of development assistance. Has the United States fully integrated aid transparency into its programing and targeting? Are the components of the existing aid transparency initiatives able to help citizens to use open data and better monitor impact of programs?

    Transparent information is necessary, but insufficient. With a large number of agencies involved in development assistance and myriad projects operating all over the world, it is incredibly difficult to monitor where and how this money is spent and to what effect. Most existing aid transparency initiatives emphasize getting information out there, but that alone won’t ensure that citizens and civil society will use it to monitor impact, or policy makers incorporate this into their program planning. People are most likely to use data that is relevant, timely and easy to understand with minimal effort.

    Making data relevant, timely and accessible. Donors can make their aid information more relevant by providing more specifics on the locations of project activities at the local level. Recognizing that the media and public are sensitive to current trends in development, donors should make efforts releasing aid data on a more frequent basis. Finally, for citizens, civil society and policymakers to engage with data on development finance it must be accessible. Donors should invest in not only releasing raw datasets, but also help end users to make meaning of them with maps, graphs, charts, and dashboards.

    Leveraging crowdsourcing for greater interaction. As more people worldwide are using mobile phones, there is an unprecedented opportunity for donors to use crowdsourcing technologies to capture real time feedback from the intended beneficiaries of aid. Many donors, in the U.S. and beyond, are exploring opportunities to “close the feedback loop” by gathering and responding to citizen feedback on development assistance activities; however, these efforts are still in their infancy and would benefit from further investment.

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    About the author

    • John Alliage Morales

      As a former Devex staff writer, John Alliage Morales covered the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community. Prior to joining Devex, John worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data, and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.