Where is the U.S. on the Road to 2015?

Three and a half years ago at the last major aid effectiveness forum in Busan, Korea, the U.S. government signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and agreed to implement it fully by the end of 2015. It recognised that a poor level of aid information hinders decision making at all steps in the development process, and that this can adversely affect development outcomes. It was a big breakthrough for IATI to gain the support of the world’s largest bilateral donor, but it has certainly not been plain sailing since.

To put it mildly, implementation of the commitment has been mixed. When we last assessed progress back in October 2014 we found the majority of U.S. agencies to be a long way off-track. With the exception of the MCC, which has made brilliant efforts in opening up its data, the rest of the agencies we assessed barely managed to score over 40% in our Index.

So will anything have changed? Have U.S. agencies made aid transparency a priority? Is U.S. aid now more open?

We’ve just passed the half-way point in 2015 and are releasing a mid-year review of progress in the U.S. We think the results are quite interesting. We’ll be presenting the review on the morning of July 1st at FHI360 in Washington, D.C. If you’d like to join us at this important discussion please RSVP to confirm your place.

If you’re unable to join us you can follow the event on Twitter via @aidtransparency and #Roadto2015

Nick Winnett, Partnerships and Outreach Officer, Publish What You Fund and Road to 2015 campaign coordinator

Partner perspective: Aidspan

Aidspan is an independent observer of the Global Fund. We spoke to Aidspan’s Senior Programme Officer, Angela Kageni, about their work with the Fund and her experiences with open data.

Can you tell me about the work that Aidspan does?

We are a hybrid organisation: A watchdog and think-tank that does research, data analytics and community-level watchdogging. We publish our analyses through various media but mostly via the Global Fund Observer (GFO), a free e-newsletter, to provide news, commentary and analysis.

We focus on the Global Fund and its grant implementers. Since 2002, when we were founded, we have been critiquing global fund policy, structures and guidelines and doing in-depth analysis of grant data, primarily from a global level lens. We opened an office in Kenya in 2007 as a way of ensuring that we could reach implementing countries far more efficiently and after 2010 increased our country level work. Sub-Sahara Africa receives more than 60% of the Fund’s money, thus our current base.

We work on the premise that the Fund is open, based on its principles of accountability and transparency. Thus, we expect its grantees to subscribe to these principles. We assess how far, or how true, that is in reality throughout the structure (i.e. at global and country levels). We also explore how much we can learn about the Fund, its investments, systems, results and usefulness with publicly accessible data. Where we can’t get critical data/information we reach out to the relevant units within the Fund and advocate for it to be made available. If we do uncover any errors we alert relevant units at the Fund and follow-up to ensure they are corrected.

So as well as being analysts you also do quite a lot of advocacy to open up more data from the Global Fund?

We do forms of advocacy but mostly we provide evidence for classic advocates to use. We wade through the data to understand the financial and programmatic picture and find ways of getting this to relevant others. We also comment on focal issues, trends (positive/negative), gaps, or challenges we were seeing, plus points of confusion, conflict or uncertainty. Anything we feel is reducing the impact of Global Fund investments…because we want the Fund to succeed. We use our e-newsletter GFO to provide a platform for people to give feedback. We also play a strong role as “explainers”, helping those at country level who are struggling to understand the Fund, what its money is doing in their countries and what that means for them in the long term.

What kinds of groups are asking these questions? Do you see any cross cutting themes in the kinds of data that they’re asking for?

We work with a wide range of partners; a mix of government, civil society, technical agencies, bilateral and multilateral partners, some research and academia, and faith based organisations.

There are about 5 key data sets people want…the first two focus on money –(1) what’s committed by the Fund’s donors (see Pledges & Contributions) and (2) what’s going to countries, to which entities, for what and how it’s being apportioned per country, region and implementing partner (i.e. agreements, disbursements). (3) Next is the flow of money (expenditure), seeking also to understand where there are blocks or delays. For example, when you notice that disbursements in an active grant have slowed down and a country has not received any money for the past 12 months or has had no expenditure of money received – that’s a red flag for an interested party. We help visualise the data online – see Country Pages, providing a chart that highlights problems – allowing people to drill down to specific grants to get a snapshot of red flags. (4) Next is performance data. The Fund uses a performance based system, disbursing only tranches of money per implementing period. Performance is rated by the Fund for that period. We aggregate the different ratings given per grant and provide an average – useful because poorly performing grants face a risk of closure – See Grant performance analysis tool. (5) The final data set people want is programmatic data – what specific activities are being funded and what results are achieved against set targets. A data portal, Aidspan Portal Workbench (APW), allows people to filter/extract what they need for financial or programmatic analyses.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is set up to fulfil this kind of need. I believe Aidspan uses IATI alongside other datasets?

We tried to use IATI but faced data quality issues. The most efficient source of data for us is the Fund’s web services. It made more sense for us to use the Fund’s web services directly due to the discrepancies in the financial data and particularly in the programmatic data on the IATI platform . We then developed our own database (APW) to allow our analysts to slice and dice the data as needed – the web services provide data in a format that doesn’t allow us to analyze the data easily.

If the IATI data was good enough, and accurate enough, would it be your preference – because it’s more flexible and you’d be able to incorporate it into your system more easily?

Well…we’d have to explore that. If you download all financial data for Global Fund grants from their web services or from our portal and if you take all Fund grants on IATI by, say, transaction, ideally you should be able to get similar results. The IATI Registry is broader, the fields provided are many but what the Fund publishes is not enough for broader analysis. Or if it does give comprehensive data, then it’s not being reflected well enough. For instance, the indicators data has huge differences and an incomplete indicators’ catalogue. Maybe there’s a problem during upload into the registry or an ineffective way of presenting the stored data via the registry interface or a gap in the Fund’s own data.

IATI could allow consistency in the type of data being provider by publishers like the Global Fund against publishers like the UK’s DFID for instance. At least on the fields that do have data it would be possible to do a cross-donor analysis. That’s very useful. But when it comes to an analysis within one donor itself or at more disaggregated levels it becomes difficult. If the data quality was good then IATI would be a key point of reference for us, particularly where we need to triangulate. If it worked out well then I don’t think we would go looking for other data access points for the kinds of data that exist there. On financial data it just makes sense to go directly to the Global Fund. We’ve not had the IATI data as our default on this.

So IATI data is just not useful at the moment?

The platform itself is wide and could be quite useful, which it isn’t right now. The IATI standard is fine – the platform provided is fine. The challenge is that the responsibility of data quality lies with the publishers. It is incumbent on them to ensure their data is as accurate, comprehensive and as up to date as possible. We know for a fact, given the data we access directly from the Fund that one can get real-time data. So, why then is that not the case with the data on the IATI platform? Also, any inconsistencies or errors in the Fund’s own data get translated onto the IATI platform. Maybe if more publishers used the data they published, like they are currently doing at DFID, they’d note these issues and fix them. As an analyst, you don’t want to start thinking about data integrity particularly when you are working with multiple, large spreadsheets. Noting errors becomes difficult and you could get into trouble after you’ve already done an analysis. So it makes people shy away.

I agree that it certainly shouldn’t be your job to ensure the data quality of a dataset.

Correct. I feel if this is not addressed then we can’t address the next thing, which is ensuring that the Global Fund encourages it grantees to get on to IATI. We can’t effectively advocate for that before we can answer “Is IATI useful?” I can’t help but imagine how great it would be if all Global Fund grantees had good quality, comprehensive data on IATI. This would allow anyone to do better cross donor, cross national, national and sub-national analyses to really understand where money is going, what it is doing and how efficiently it’s being used. This will improve how recipient countries plan for the future. It is extremely difficult to do this efficiently or accurately now.

What do you see as the big opportunity for open data in the post-2015 Development Agenda and Financing for Development?

The platform developers and data cleaners and formatters have done their job. The next bit now rests with others. The immediate gaps right now are getting more people to use the data provided and identifying the problems that are in the existing data. Many shy away from interacting with this data thinking that it’s difficult to use. You’ll find national level organisations that could, for instance, do great sub-national analysis, using the findings to promote critical debate about transparency, accountability and effectiveness in the implementation of donor grants. Instead the majority are looking for funding from the donors or initiating projects in densely supported areas instead of going for areas that lack support. Top level data will always matter until programmes are funded 100% by national governments but more than ever country level data is vital – who is doing what, where, how efficiently and who’s benefiting most and how this links into future planning.

Any final thoughts?

Behaviour change on how to use data is almost as difficult as behaviour change on accepting watchdogging. People do accept that data are useful but more of them need also to start using those data in their day to day planning, reporting and other decisions; just as we are trying to get the Fund and its implementers to accept that being watched by people like us is useful to the success of their programmes.

You can follow Angela on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/akageni

Partner perspective: AidOpener

This is a guest post by Michael Medley – a scholar, teacher, activist and consultant, specializing in the Sudans, and international aid issues. Learn more at www.aidopener.org

AidOpener.  For activists not technocrats

Last month I launched a small initiative in the struggle for aid transparency and accountability. The website is called AidOpener. Its first offering is a tool for viewing aid data (specifically, IATI activity data) in a scrollable table. Yes, there were already several viewing tools out there, software much more professionally produced than this. But AidOpener’s Tabulator offers – or at least represents – something worthwhile, and in this post I’ll try to explain why.

Motivation

I had been working on another website: one which aimed to provide information for active citizens in South Sudan. Around the time of the new nation’s independence in 2011 there was much international attention to helping create governmental machinery, machinery which would work efficiently and democratically. A lot of aid money went into this. But by last year dreams of good governance had become nightmares. Corruption was rife; a new civil war and humanitarian catastrophe had started. Politicians had evidently been siphoning away oil revenues while aid donors bankrolled most of the health services and many other public amenities in the country.

I wondered whether the aid had been doing more good than harm, and what a complete account of it would look like. I’d heard of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Donors and other agencies were supposed to be publishing details of all their activities. Could I use this to make a catalogue for South Sudan citizens, to help them participate and think critically about the projects? Perhaps it would provide a model and spur for them also to expect more information and accountability from their government.

No, I couldn’t. At least, not a very useful catalogue, not readily. I learned how, under IATI, aid agencies publish information in a common structure using a computerese markup language (XML). While the XML enables the shared structure, it does not immediately help the human eye to make sense of the information in bulk. Software tools are needed to unpack and interpret the files. But none of the software tools available for working with IATI data seemed to provide what I wanted. So I started making my own.

Comparison with already-existing tools

Some of the already-available software provides visualizations of aggregate IATI data: for instance the total amount of money spent by a particular agency in a certain country. But the IATI data is not yet really suitable for aggregation. IATI totals for donors tend to be much smaller than apparently-equivalent figures reported through OECD’s system. This is largely because many donors are not reporting all of their activities in the IATI system, or not reporting them fully.

Other available tools generate lists of projects or activities (for instance, of a particular agency in a certain country). The user can click on one of the listed activities to get further details about it. A problem here is that the activity title or description in the list often does not give you much clue as to what the project is about, so one needs to keep clicking in and out of the pages of details. And the pages of details. too, are often strangely uninformative about the most interesting things in projects: their objectives, methods and achievements.

AidOpener’s Tabulator is designed to show activities in batches, and to show at a glance what sort of information has been published about each one. This allows relatively easy appraisal of the quality of the publishing, and identification of interesting cases. I say ‘relatively’ because there is never be a perfect way of representing large quantities of moderately complex data. On top of that, the Tabulator still contains plenty of bugs and flaws. It requires the user to grapple with the data in order to shape their view of it. But this is perhaps its greatest virtue. It avoids too much smoothing-over of the gaps and weaknesses in the source data. It preserves a fairly clear connection with what was originally published. And in doing so, it helps the users see how woefully inadequate the published information still is.

Why it matters

IATI was set up more than six years ago. It is still nowhere near achieving complete and consistent coverage of international aid. Although its activity listings usually mention amounts of money disbursed, the inclusion and quality of other information is very uneven. There is seldom any detailed specification of what the spending was intended to achieve and the extent to which the aim was fulfilled. Even where there are links to project documents, these rarely include a final project report or a reasonably current set of annual reports.

In a way this is understandable. Development projects and humanitarian work are difficult. Almost by definition they take place in environments where physical and governmental infrastructure are weak. They involve awkward balances of costs and benefits, so leave plenty of room for criticism and controversy. Aid agencies and their officials – like most of us – are naturally nervous about exposing themselves to attack and inconvenience. So while many endorse transparency and accountability, few pursue them with rigorous determination.

IATI seems in danger of failing. Its core members are worried that, in order to justify the expense to all the agencies of reporting the information, the information must be used by more people. A frequent diagnosis has been that attractive software tools are needed for presenting the data. Unfortunately, the use of the data has too often been envisaged as technocratic: high-level analysis for policy and planning. This tends quickly to lead to the attempts at aggregation mentioned above, which do not produce satisfactory results because the source data is too uneven and unreliable.

That donors ought to facilitate rather than disrupt national-level policy and planning in developing countries was one of the main arguments for the creation of IATI in the first place. But there is another mission for IATI which is arguably even more important and whose pursuit is more likely to yield fruit in the short or medium term. It is the respecting of citizen rights to information.

Public access to detailed information is important because it breathes life into democracy. In the sphere of aid, not only can it enable proper debate on the political effects of projects, but it can also help make the industry a less friendly habitat for incompetence and corruption.

The need for activism

Such access must be demanded as a right. (On its status as a right see the analysis by Article 19.) The enlightened ideology of donors and other agencies has played a big part in getting IATI up and running, but is insufficient to drive it through the painful realities of self-exposure. To push IATI to success we need active citizens and local organizations to agitate: mobilize the people who are affected by aid projects and those who care about aid expenditure; discuss what we learn about projects; harness outrage at how little we are told; message the aid agencies and governments; interest the news media; mount legal challenges where appropriate.

This is what AidOpener aims to support.

Case study: The “publish once, use often” approach of the Netherlands

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MinBuza) renews the data held in its data warehouse every month and publishes it directly to the IATI Registry. The information is used to monitor where MinBuza is doing what, with whom and in what way and to monitor progress on various topics, including policy priorities or cross-cutting efforts on issues such as climate and gender. Since MinBuza’s data covers all three elements of the common standard, the data is also used externally for reporting to the FSS and the CRS++, reducing duplicate reporting efforts and ensuring consistency. The data cover about 95% of all ODA activities of the Netherlands.

Since it first started publishing to IATI in 2011, MinBuza has enriched its dataset with future budget estimates, the geo-location of activities and some policy markers. Since mid-2014 it also publishes a public version of the assessment of activities, describing why it decided to support the activity.

Other, external uses of the Ministry’s data include the website openaid.nl and the application ‘Where Does My Aid Go?‘. MinBuza has also launched a website visualising its budget, including estimated and actual expenditures on activities. In the coming year the visualisations on openaid.nl will be further enhanced

MinBuza is in the process of setting up an open data pilot with Rwanda to explore how to meet their information needs for planning purposes and another one with UNDP, aiming to improve traceability across the development chain.

Another target for MinBuza between now and 2016 is to require that all organisations it is supporting (CSOs, multilaterals and private sector partners) publish their data according to the full IATI Standard, including results data. It is working closely with two Dutch organisations, Partos and Cordaid, with the longer-term aim of including open data throughout the Ministry’s development chains and to stimulate exchange and learning.

Case study: Mohinga – Myanmar’s home-grown Aid Information Management System

Myanmar has seen an influx of international aid since the new Government began its democratic transition and social and economic reform programme in 2011. Government officials quickly realised the importance of being able to track aid activities and expenditure and to manage and guide this assistance effectively. The need for improved aid tracking was also recognised by development partners and expressed within the Nay Pi Taw Accord for Effective Development Cooperation endorsed in 2013, with the view toward taking concrete, joint actions to make aid coordination more effective.

Before determining which model of aid coordination to adopt, Myanmar officials first spoke to their counterparts in neighbouring countries Cambodia, Laos, Nepal and as far as Rwanda to gauge their experiences with Aid Information Management Systems (AIMS). With support from the European Union, Myanmar officials also visited Timor-Leste to learn from their experiences in managing aid and with aid transparency more broadly. As a result of these exchanges, Myanmar decided to build its own ‘home grown’ AIMS to ensure the finished product would respond to the country’s particular needs, be online quickly, and be able to expand and develop in line with future needs.

The next question faced by Myanmar was what format development partners should be asked to provide their data in. It was agreed that the AIMS would be developed directly in line with the IATI standard from the outset. Myanmar itself also decided to join IATI in June 2014 and has been an active participant in Steering Committee meetings and the Partner Country Caucus.

Having decided on the overall approach, the Government, with European Union support, engaged Catalpa International, a human-centered design and technology agency focused on providing innovative, simple and effective solutions in an international development context, to help create the system.

Catalpa’s software development team began by spending several weeks working alongside staff from the Foreign Economic Relations Department (FERD) within the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development to better understand their data needs and how aid reporting currently worked. Using a ‘human-centered’ design approach the application was then designed and built in collaboration with Ministry staff. Early versions of the application were trialled and revised with officials over the course of 2014, while a first round of data was collected from development partners.

The system called Mohinga, after a fish noodle soup popular in Myanmar, was launched on February 7th 2015 with an estimated 80% of ODA to Myanmar currently recorded. It is the first locally-built, IATI-native, mobile-ready, open-source AIMS.  With Mohinga, approximately 1,300 projects have been tracked in Myanmar, a significant increase from the 400 projects that the government was able to track prior to the development of the system. The process of making the information publicly available has also resulted in development partners becoming more proactive at providing more accurate and better quality information and in building confidence in releasing more detailed information over time.

The Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development has been conducting internal awareness building sessions, training staff on how to use the platform. Development partners such as the European Union, have facilitated the dissemination of information on the use of the system amongst other development partners in-country.

In February 2015, Catalpa and FERD completed the first automatic exchange of IATI data into the Mohinga AIMS. This process was achieved with a 100% successful import of the UK Government’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) IATI data. As a result of the successful data import, DFID offices in Yangon did not need to manually enter the data for 226 activities and 935 financial transactions. With the success of the first automatic exchange pilot, further work is currently underway to allow other development partners to facilitate the import of their own IATI data into the Mohinga AIMS. One-off imports of data from development partners with comprehensive IATI-driven data portals, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, have already been successfully completed.

A new feature, currently under development, will allow Myanmar’s development partners to complement the information published to the IATI Registry, with information held in-country to create a more complete view of activities in IATI XML format. These locally-generated files can then be used by development partners to update the information available via the IATI Registry, creating a positive feedback loop and making it easier to ensure greater consistency between information held at development partner headquarters and at the country level. Data from non-IATI publishers is also being collected locally by FERD and converted to IATI format, demonstrating the need for having the information in a consistent and comparable format as well the fact that it is possible to present information from across organisations in this format.

The data available in Mohinga is already being used in many ways. The EU has used it to inform discussions regarding their joint-programming strategy in Myanmar. Officials from the Ministry of National Planning Economic Development use Mohinga in daily monitoring and decision-making.

In May 2015, FERD and the Development Partners’ Working Committee (DWPC) met to discuss, amongst other things, how to improve the comprehensiveness and completeness of data reported. Ahead of the meeting, FERD delved into Mohinga data and analysed the completeness of the information provided by different development partners. FERD was also able to identify fields development partners are struggling with, and fields that are not being filled out despite being relatively simple, such as contact details, activity descriptions and sectors. FERD displayed the rankings from most to least complete. Sharing the findings of this exercise with development partners has led to a sharp rise in overall data completeness.

Civil society organisations too have used Mohinga to identify data gaps and hold development partners accountable. Within hours of Mohinga’s launch, one Twitter user associated with an organisation working on health and HIV-related issues took to Twitter to promote the site as a source of information on health-related projects. More recently, that same user also took to Twitter to ask UNICEF where development assistance reported in local media could be found within Mohinga.[1]

But it has not been all plain sailing. The biggest challenge has been the lack of, or poor quality and incomplete information, published to IATI by some of Myanmar’s major development partners and limited information on forward flows. Other challenges faced include recording multi-donor trust funds accurately and comprehensively while avoiding double counting and lack of integration of development partner country-level financial systems with information systems at the headquarters level and the resulting inconsistencies in information.

Some of the key lessons learnt from the process of developing Mohinga include:

  • The lack of comprehensive, comparable, accessible and timely information remains an impediment to the sole reliance on IATI data. As such, IATI data exchange into local AIMS still requires local-level data quality checking.
  • Development partners need to do more to provide forward-looking and disaggregated data for the information to be useful for planning, budgeting and coordination purposes. Better international compliance to IATI can then translate to fewer duplicate reporting demands on development partners at the country level.
  • It is important to set a clear scope for Aid Information Management Systems and mobilise adequate resources for the on-going improvement and stable provision of these applications. This is not just for the initial development phase but also for development of additional features, making adjustments to the system after initial testing and pilots and for on-going maintenance. Consideration should also be given to viewing AIMS applications more like an on-going service, such as Linkedin or AirBNB, and less like an installable spread sheet.
  • Equally important is ensuring country ownership of the system for long-term sustainability, which requires close involvement of direct beneficiaries within government in all phases of the development and utilisation of the system.
  • Resources need to be allocated to building awareness amongst stakeholders and users of the system on the information available and the gaps that need to be addressed. Feedback loops are critical for ensuring a virtuous cycle of improving data quality and use.

[1] See: https://twitter.com/himmoderator/status/597725603169710080

Case study: Implementing Aid Transparency in Sweden

In 2010, the Swedish government introduced the transparency guarantee of Swedish aid, and in 2011 the first version of the Openaid.se platform was launched.

The progress made by Sida so far is due to a number of factors, including: support from political and management levels; broad organisational involvement from communication officers, statisticians, IT staff, archivists and program managers, and; open dialogue and information sharing with other donors and stakeholders. By creating a team that includes the necessary competencies with weekly coordination and strategy meetings, Sida has established a solid process that moves them forward.

The support of the IATI community has also played an important role in Sida’s progress. For example, DFID assisted Sida with data conversion using DFID’s SQL-to-IATI conversion database, and the IATI support team have been important contributors to improving Sida’s IATI publication. In the same spirit, Sida offers their Openaid platform as a open source WordPress theme, freely available to use and adapt to individual needs.

Sida makes a case for ‘eating your own dogfood’ through the current version of Openaid.se that is entirely based on the data they have published to the IATI Datastore. Increasing quality is partly about meeting the requirements of the IATI standard, but also about communicating internally to staff about the accessibility of the material they produce and the audiences it is available to. This is achieved through continuous and open dialogue with the staff and seminars about what to consider in their daily project management work in terms of privacy, security and awareness about the accessibility of an external public audience.

In terms of usability of the platform, Sida’s main focus is on targeting aid professionals, journalists and researchers and to address their needs, with the aim of increasing use of the data. In 2014 Sida conducted public seminars in Sweden about the role of transparency, open and big data for development and participated in hackathons as data providers. In the latest version of Openaid.se the goal has been to create an interface that is both simple and intuitive yet precise and sophisticated enough to appeal to our multiple audiences. The interface allows you to ask very specific questions, and export the data as CSV, XMS or PDF, alternatively as an embed code to be used online. Sida is increasingly incorporating Openaid.se and IATI data in their communication efforts and working on developing new visualisation options that makes the data easy to understand and analyze. Another recent and perhaps unique aspect of Openaid is that Sida has started to publish corruption investigation reports.

In the run up to the Busan deadline, Sida will work to increase both the quantity and quality of their data, and upgrade to the latest version of the IATI standard (2.01). The focus will particularly be on traceability by increasing available data from Swedish CSOs and missions abroad. Additionally, Sida will work to improve procedures and awareness of data quality among staff involved in the project management process.

Sida has recently published a series of blogs, sharing their experience of implementing aid transparency commitments, detailing the process involved, challenges faced and lessons learnt. Read more here: http://www.openaid.se/blog/implementing-aid-transparency-in-sweden-white-paper-part-1-why-do-we-care-about-aid-transparency-and-iati/

Case study: The European Commission’s Inter-service Working Group

As an original signatory to IATI and commitments made at Busan, the European Commission has played an active role in the development of the standard as well as meeting its own transparency commitments. As the directorate accounting for 75% of the EC’s ODA DG DEVCO plays an important role within the EU through its advocacy role and by providing advice to Member States on fulfilling their commitments to the Busan common standard.

The Commission rolled out publication of IATI standard data across its main aid-spending departments, starting with DG DEVCO’s initial publication in October 2011, followed by DG Enlargement (currently DG NEAR, the newly established directorate-general for neighbourhood and enlargement negotiations), ECHO and FPI’s publication in July 2013. ECHO was already publishing open data in a different format in its information system and has thus followed a slightly different path to publish to IATI, using the facilities of the EU AID Explorer tool.

An inter-service working group was established in 2013, with each department working towards developing an implementation schedule tailored to its own specificities.  2013 was an instrumental year that saw all four department making improvements in both the breadth of data published and the degree of automation of their publications. It also marked the move to monthly publishing. The inter-service group also assisted the European Investment Bank (EIB) towards its first IATI standard data publication in 2014.

The group engages at both the technical and policy levels. Some of the technical issues that the group has been tackling in recent times include:

  • Publishing outstanding items
  • Improving the format of data publication towards the ‘gold standard’ of IATI XML
  • Ensuring improved, uninterrupted and timely publication of IATI data with the design and build of proposed new internal IT platforms
  • Enhancing internal use of data publication

At the policy-level, the group is developing an internal awareness raising strategy for transparency, organising training sessions, carrying out internal consultations to ensure a coherent approach in engaging with the IATI community and exploring the implications of opening up new pieces of information.

Working together has facilitated peer to peer learning, allowed for better utilisation of capacity and for bringing all the DGs to a similar level in terms of their publication, while encouraging improvements based on each other’s publication strengths. It has also been useful for garnering management support and buy-in on issues related to IATI publication.

Case study: Developing a Homegrown Aid Database: Lessons from Bangladesh

This is a guest post by Mehdi Musharraf Bhuiyan, Aid Effectiveness Unit, Economic Relations Division, Government of Bangladesh

With sustained economic growth in recent decades, Bangladesh has been successful in reducing its dependence on foreign assistance. Nevertheless, foreign aid still plays a significant role in the overall development of the country. Up-to-date information on aid flows in the country, however is often only available off line. It is also currently scattered between different institutions like the Economic Relations Division (ERD) which is in charge of aid coordination, the Planning Ministry which is in charge of development planning, IMED which is in charge of monitoring results, the Line Ministries who negotiate projects with the donors and so forth.

To provide a single entry window for all foreign aid related information in Bangladesh and to properly track and manage the aid flows, the ERD, with support from its Aid Effectiveness Project has developed a homegrown Aid Information Management System (AIMS).

The AIMS now acts as a one-stop-shop for all information related to foreign assistance in Bangladesh, covering all sectors, projects and donors. It offers a single software application that records and processes information on development activities and related aid flows in the country.

Any Development Partner (DP) Agency willing to share their aid related information will have to register for entering their data into AIMS. Towards that end, a total of 17 DPs out of around 28 DP agencies working in Bangladesh have so far registered for the system– while it is expected that all other DPs will start entering their data into the system very soon. For the donors who have not registered into the AIMS, their aid data is currently being captured by offline outreach to the donors through Excel sheets that documents only commitments and disbursements.

Here are some salient points that are being replicated or can be replicated from Bangladesh’s experience of developing a homegrown aid database:

  • Bangladesh AIMS was developed through a wide consultative and inclusive process involving the government, development partners and civil society organizations over a period of 20 months. This continuous stakeholder consultation and feedback has ensured that the design is perfectly adjusted to the needs of future users and local stakeholders. – For example- it was ensured as per stakeholder requirement that the system is interoperable with other databases of the government.
  • The designing of AIMS in Bangladesh went through several stages of evaluation before it was made accessible to everyone. Initially a prototype of the AIMS software was developed which was later disseminated with the stakeholders for their comments and inputs. Afterwards, the User Acceptance Test (UAT) version of AIMS was released to test whether the application meets necessary requirements. A few months later, the BETA version of the software, with limited accessibility, was released for online testing. This step-by-step process allowed us to fine-tune the design from time to time as per the user requirements. For example- a number of additional data fields as well as reporting features were added while a few interface issues were addressed in later stages as part of this fine tuning.
  • By opting for a home grown, locally developed software, we ensured that the designing cost was much lower and there are no continuous licensing fees. In addition, locally developed software also ensures that (i) source code and software documentation will be available to the Government, which ensures further customization at minimum cost. (ii) server costs are low, at local market rates (iii) up grading the system need only be done when government (not the service provider) requires them, at low cost (iv) the maintenance cost of the AIMS can easily be absorbed in the revenue budget after project closure (v) system can be interoperable with other data bases of the government such as domestic budget database (iBAS), debt management database (DMFAS) and the future M&E database. As such, Bangladesh AIMS has generated keen interest in replication by other developing country government, as a more cost-effective solution for aid management than the commercially available systems.
  • In Bangladesh—the use of latest digital equipment (e.g. – tablet PCS, smart phones) in public institutions and civil society organizations is still limited. Government institutions, in particular, are still in the process of switching from paper-based works to digitized systems. Taking this into account, AIMS application has been customized for easy use on traditional ICT tools like desktop PCs and laptops. This can be an important lesson for countries that are still lagging behind in terms of ICT usage.
  • The rollout of AIMS, in our case, was initially confronted with limited awareness among DPs around their international commitments in the field of aid transparency, limited understanding of IATI standards and limited readiness of DPs to provide project data on AIMS. However, extensive consultation and training has been undertaken to address this issue and will be continued in the near future which resulted in increased data upload by the donors
  • Currently, the data on our aims is provided directly by the donors. But we are in close touch with the IATI Secretariat and we will be piloting automatic data collection from the IATI Registry in the near future. However, there are certain limitations of automated transfer of IATI data which, we feel, need to be addressed. For example:
    • Multi—donor projects, when drawn from the IATI data-store, gets reflected in AIMS as multiple projects.
    • Funds that are channeled through multilateral agencies cannot be traced back to their original donor within IATI.
    • Experience of the IATI secretariat also shows that considerable manual verification by the local DP office is required for the static data, or non-financial data due to generally poor quality of the data published in the IATI registry.
    • Very few DP headquarters publish forward looking data in IATI. This means that forward looking data would still have to be entered manually by the local DP office.

“It is satisfying to note that the response from our development partners since the establishment of AIMS is very encouraging. For the majority of donors on the system, we now have a quite comprehensive data set. It is expected that regular and timely data sharing on AIMS will ensure better availability of comprehensive, accurate and timely aid data to get a complete picture of aid flows. This will improve national budgeting and promote sector level alignment with national priorities spelled out in the 6th Five Year Plan”- said Mr. Mohammad Mejbahuddin, Senior Secretary of Economic Relations Division (ERD) of the Government of Bangladesh and Vice Chair of IATI in a newspaper article.

Where is the EU on the Road to 2015?

“We will work to improve the availability and public accessibility of information on development co-operation and other development resources, building on our respective commitments in this area. To this end, we will…implement a common, open standard for electronic publication of timely, comprehensive and forward-looking information on resources provided through development…with the aim of implementing it fully by December 2015“.

(Busan Partnership Agreement §23, December 2011)

We now have just six months to go until the deadline for donors to fully open up their aid information. Three and a half years ago at the last major aid effectiveness forum in Busan, Korea, donors agreed to do this. They’ve had plenty of time, but now the clock is ticking on their promise. It is critical that those who have made little progress act now.

In the run up to the deadline we are coordinating the Road to 2015 campaign, a civil society coalition that is pushing donors to deliver on this commitment. As part of the campaign we are conducting two aid transparency reviews to see how donors are progressing. Later this week we will be launching the first of these reviews, which will focus on the progress of major EU donors. We will be publishing a full Aid Transparency Index in early 2016 so we can see how donors have fared in meeting the deadline, but we didn’t want to let them off the hook this year, so we’ve designed these reviews as a mid-year stock-take.

This year is an important one not just for transparency, but for the whole development sector. The Busan deadline that was set back in 2011 is also timed to coincide with the start of the post-2015 Development Agenda, the shape of which is currently being negotiated. To give the new agenda every chance of success it is crucial that donors have laid the proper groundwork to allow them to systematically publish timely and complete information about their activities.

Furthermore, if donors cannot fulfil a promise which is so achievable then it is hard to take any new commitments seriously. A group of donors are taking the lead and showing that high levels of transparency are achievable; but the efforts of this lead group are being dragged down by the rest. For transparency to be transformative, we must be able to see the whole picture, not just patches of it.

So which European donors are we reviewing?

When will the review be out?

The review will be released on Wednesday June 3rd, and the findings will be discussed as part of an event at the European Development Days in Brussels on Thursday June 4th. If you’re coming to the EDDs then please come along!

How can you get involved?

If your organisation is interested in joining the Road to 2015 campaign then please get in touch. We greatly value the support of our partners; by working together we can put extra pressure on donors throughout the rest of this year to deliver on their promise.

This blog was originally posted on 1st June 2015 on the Publish What You Fund website