Transparency and access to data is an important part of aid effectiveness. Aside from providing people with the right to access information, the aim of aid transparency is threefold: to better coordinate aid, enable more accountability, and allow for in-country actors to know what is happening in their own communities, thus giving them more ownership over what happens in their name.
The U.S. government currently hosts two incomplete foreign assistance databases (ForeignAssistance.gov and FAE Explorer), which are meant to be consolidated. This consolidation is an opportunity to design a better foreign aid database. The initial deadline as suggested in the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act for unifying the two dashboards has passed, and as USAID, the State Department, and Congress try to the figure out a solution, it is critical that the new platform strive to provide information that is useful, usable and used.
An ideal data dashboard would hold all of the necessary information in a machine readable format with the ability for all information to be easily searched. The goal for any dashboard should be to put not only raw information at people’s fingertips, but quick answers to their queries too.
Unfortunately, the current dashboards lack many of these functions. Clunky PDFs are the norm for reporting detailed information and outdated information management systems abound, meaning users are unable to share the detailed information that stakeholders demand. However, Congress’s call for the administration to consolidate aid data into one, high-quality database is an opportunity to realize the dream of a single high-quality, highly usable dashboard.
Some key components that need to be built in are: financial data (national and project budgets, disbursements, commitments, and transactions); information on what the project plans to do or what is accomplished (results/services provided, all disaggregated by gender); and subnational location information with links to the “results” and financial information. For example, if a water and sanitation project is being implemented in Liberia, the data should show that a water filtration plant is being built in Monrovia with 50 boreholes, and 1,000 latrines being dug in 5 different counties, as part of a $3 million project. It is important to know the breakdown of what is happening where and how. This way communities know what they are supposed to be gaining access to and can determine if the project actually delivered, and implementers can identify gaps, overlaps, and contradictions. This enables aid and development funding to work together in one unified coordinated push toward a country’s development. This requires details about what is happening where.
It is also critical that in the design of a new merged dashboard, the needs of all user groups are considered. Different groups need different types of information and want to access it in different ways. The U.S.-based organizations concerned with budget accountability want planned, appropriated, and spent budget data broken down by country, funding account, sector, and by cross-sector tags like the gender equality tag. Some will want it in a machine readable format so they can create pivot tables and sort through the data more relevant to them. Others will need tools to help them do that. Their needs are drastically different than the needs of developing country stakeholders.
A civil society organization in Uganda, for example, wants the specifics about what is happening in to his/her country or community. A woman’s rights organization may need another set of information to ensure that women and girls are actually having their needs addressed by projects. For this, they may want to see a gender analysis and plans to address the differences identified in the analysis, like challenges in access. A USAID partner may want to know the lessons learned so they can create more effective programs with every iteration. None of these needs is more or less important. In an ideal world, the consolidated U.S. aid transparency dashboard would enable users to easily access all of the information that contributes to aid effectiveness. The more high-quality details, the better, as long as users can sort and filter to find what they need, so they are not left to drown in a sea of information.
A unified dashboard should have these real world use cases in mind as it is designed, and provide as much interconnected data as possible. It should also be created on a solid foundation so it can be easily updated and changed, adding new components both when it becomes feasible, but also as demands and needs are identified. Accounting for users and their needs will take U.S. data a step further in supporting aid effectiveness.
Aria Grabowski is Policy Advisor for Accountable Development Finance at Oxfam America.