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.