A Race to the Top: The 2014 Aid Transparency Index and Why it Matters

See below for a guest post from Sarah Lucas, Program Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This piece originally appeared on the Hewlett Foundation’s blog on October 16.

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The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) won the race to the top in 2014. But if the past few years are any indication, it won’t hold onto the top spot for long. Last year the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation took top honors, and in 2012 it was the UK Department for International Development. The fact that the race is on—for increased transparency in foreign assistance—is a huge tribute to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI). The Index, in its fourth year of publication, ranks an ever-growing number of global donors (currently 68) on how transparent their spending is.

Last week’s launch of the 2014 ATI at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC offered four very different leaders in transparency a chance to talk about how ATI is inspiring agencies to action, and why that matters—one each from a multilateral donor, a bilateral donor, a civil society network, and a ministry of finance.

Ranking tenth in 2012, and forth in 2013, UNDP crept their way up to #1 on the Index in 2014. They took the long-view, built the necessary systems, and in the words of Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, they made a deliberate decision to change their culture and mindset toward openness—not just at headquarters, but across their 140 country offices.

If UNDP ran a marathon to the top spot, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) ran a sprint. PEPFAR ranks only 30th on the 2014 Index, so why the hype? Well, just last year they were number 50. PEPFAR is a clear case of what you can achieve if you have a real champion for open data in the drivers’ seat. Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and head of PEPFAR, is just that. With three decades working in HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health, she came into office with a clear-eyed and heartfelt interest in data. She started at PEPFAR in April 2014, just three months before the cut-off for data collection for the 2014 ATI. After the launch event, a representative of Publish What you Fund mentioned that Birx has asked them what she could do to improve on the Index. No one believed she could move the needle in 2014 because she had so little time. But in the course of just a few weeks, she took the program up 20 spots. Proof positive that political will is more important than the technical or administrative complications of opening the books.

As interesting as the horserace is, it is not nearly as interesting as why UNDP and PEPFAR made these moves. Why do these agencies want to be in the race at all?

The most common “whys” behind aid transparency center on two principles:

Facilitate accountability—If citizens (in both donor and recipient countries) have more information about aid flows, they can better hold their governments accountable for using it well. Dalitso Kubalasa, Executive Director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, made this case clearly at the launch event. For years he and his colleagues have literally had to knock on the doors of donors and their own government to eke out data about who is spending what in his country. That’s definitely one way to slow him down in holding his government accountable!

Improve planning—How can country governments, and their donor partners, plan interventions and allocate resources if they don’t have a clear picture of what others are doing? How do you know whether to allocate your scarce education resources to teacher training, building classrooms, or school feeding programs if you don’t know who is doing what in the sector?

These reasons are compelling enough. But Birx and Xu took it a big step further. At the launch, they told us why increased transparency matters for their ability to get their jobs done. Together, they argued that more transparency helps them:

Build a base of support—Xu noted that UNDP relies on voluntary contributions and being transparent about what they do makes it easier to attract support. Birx pointed out that in the face of so many domestic priorities, the American people deserve to know how aid dollars are being spent. She also argued that only with hard data can you make the case that we are not “done” with HIV/AIDS even though global advocates have partly moved on to other things.

Promote innovation and learn from failure—Subject yourself to scrutiny, Xu argued, and you’ll learn how to improve. “There is a lot of self-interest in this,” he said. And while most data agencies don’t yet release much data on program results (focusing first on the more universally comparable financial data), Publish What You Fund hopes they will in the future. Birx is on board with that. “Negative results would be great,” she said, because they give you a chance to build on lessons, do better in the future and help others avoid your mistakes.

These additional “whys”—as compelling as they are—are inwardly-focused. All of the speakers, including keynote Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance from Nigeria, encouraged us to dream even bigger. The future vision for aid transparency includes being able to:

Spend more time doing good work, and less time tracking down the dollars—Several audience members rightfully asked, who is actually using aid data in developing countries? I’llnever forget meeting the poor guy in Malawi charged with tracking and coordinating across donor-funded health programs. Tucked away in a basement office in the Ministry of Health, he had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with binders, each labeled for a different donor—PEPFAR, Global Fund, JICA, UNDP, USAID, SIDA, AFDB, DFID, and on and on. Imagine if instead of riffling through all these binders to answer the question, “how much are donors spending on malaria prevention and treatment in Malawi?” he could go to a one-stop-shop for data online? That vision is why the ATI not only measures if agencies make their data public, but also whether they report it to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)’s Registry.

Set a high bar for developing governments too—Both Minister Okonjo-Iweala and Kubalasa were passionate on this point. Aid is only one piece of the puzzle, and for some, at least, an increasingly small one. There is a collective responsibility for development outcomes and transparency of financial flows. By getting their own houses in order, donors set an example for partner countries to publish their budgets as well. Minister Okonjo-Iweala said, almost to herself, “I haven’t published all the aid we have received . . . maybe I should do that. It would be a good complement to publishing our own budget.” She then added more firmly, “We are moving, but haven’t reached Nirvana yet!”

Better target resources to needs—Birx got practically giddy when she described what’s next for PEPFAR: site-level data (think villages or communities). She said all partner organizations funded by PEPFAR in 2014 had to agree to produce site-level data. Why is Birx pushing for this? If you look at average values for resources or results across all program sites, you won’t know which are under/over resourced relative to need. But if you can triangulate site-level data—for example, on resource flows, rates of counseling and testing services, results in prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and HIV positivity levels, you could seriously tailor your interventions, use your more money more wisely, and save more lives.

Attract creative minds to solve complex problems—In another call for multi-dimensional analysis, Birx expressed frustration at not being able to bring together economic, demographic, health, and financial data to really understand complex development problems and the resources dedicated to solving them. However, there are surely data-savvy, service-minded people who can do this. The key, she argued, is to make databases “appealing and discernable” enough to attract attention. It’s not enough to put gobs of data on a website. People need help navigating the data and understanding why they’re important. That’s why the ATI measures not only availability of data, but its accessibility too. Six of the seven top performers in 2014 have open data portals that promote access to and use of their data. For example, check out portals for DFIDSweden,UNDPMCC and the World Bank.

These speakers made a compelling case for why aid transparency matters, and why they will continue to push their own agencies to improve. With all this motivation, let’s hope we see even more donors jockeying to move up the Index in 2015.

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