Financing and Development: Donors must make the aid data revolution reality

Years ago, I spent a summer working in the research department of an investment bank. My job was to analyse company data and spot long-term trends in equities markets. As finance professionals know, the data can be overwhelming: numbers blinking on Bloomberg terminals, scrolling across TV screens and clogging up your email in endless reports. But in mature markets, the data is freely available on the day its published, and there are stiff penalties if its withheld or falsified. An army of analysts jumps on every quarterly earnings report or press release, digests its implications, and quickly raises the alarm if the numbers don’t add up. There are many obstacles to the efficient functioning of financial markets, but a shortage of information is not one of them.

The contrast with international development is stark. Last year, I helped the Government of Sierra Leone to set up a Situation Room to manage the fight against Ebola. The government and its partners were able to map where the sick people were, where the hospitals and clinics were, and how many people were being treated in each. Many partners have been generous with financial assistance – not least the UK. But the government often doesn’t know how much aid it is getting, or where that aid is going. Imagine opening an Ebola treatment centre without knowing who will pay the staff.

There is a lot of data in development, but most of it is buried in long reports and hidden in closed IT systems. Even if you can get hold of it, you can’t always trust it. In his book ‘Poor Numbers’, Morten Jerven explains why. One reason is that national statistics offices are rarely a priority for cash-strapped governments. But there is no excuse for the poor quality of data on aid. The governments and foundations who provide aid know where it is going and have in fact committed to publish this information to a common standard for aid reporting by the end of 2015. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) currently has over 300 aid organisations opening up their accounts and publishing their aid to the IATI Registry. Yet many leading donors of international aid are still publishing too little, too late.

Take Sierra Leone for example. You can see at that Sierra Leone received US$321 million for humanitarian aid in 2014. Almost all of that was for Ebola. The UK government was a major contributor, and the Netherlands and UN agencies also pitched in. But there is little information from major donors like the U.S., France or Germany. The U.S. government has committed over US$1 billion to fighting Ebola in West Africa. That is more than the entire annual budgets of Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone. Those governments need to know what donors are doing so they can use their own money to best effect and not spend it on the same things.

Aid transparency doesn’t have to be hard. Governments like the Netherlands have found that if they publish to IATI once, they can give the same data to their partners, taxpayers and other donors. The United Nations Development Programme has shown that UN agencies can do it too – indeed they ranked first place in our 2014 Aid Transparency Index. In the U.S., the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are leading the way. Donors who publish soon find that transparency makes their aid better. The French Minister for International Development, Annick Girardin, told Devex what happened when France put its aid to Mali online at

Malians themselves come to the website to tell us, “this particular project did not meet expectations”, or “we would have preferred something different”. Beyond transparency, this is enabling participation of French citizens, but also of countries where we provide support through our partnerships.

The transparency rules in financial markets were usually established after stockmarket crashes like 1929 or 2008. It was during the Great Depression that the U.S. Congress required public companies to have their accounts audited, report their results once a quarter, and prohibited insider trading. The system isn’t foolproof, and requires constant updating, but no investor can imagine modern finance without data.

In 2013, a UN panel of presidents and prime ministers called for a data revolution in development. It’s time for aid donors to make that revolution a reality. See for more information.

Rupert Simons – CEO of Publish What You Fund

Development Initiatives’ Data Manifesto

Development Initiatives has put together ‘The Data Manifesto’ which sets out 12 recommendations for the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution.

The Manifesto sets out DI’s belief that the data revolution should be about data “grounded in real life”. This means information that gets to the “people who need it at national and sub-national levels to help with the decisions they face – hospital directors, school managers, city councillors, parliamentarians”.

it also refers to the need to disaggregate data, to show the real impact of decisions and results on the ground, something which Publish What You Fund strongly advocates for as well.

To deliver this vision, we need the following steps.

The Data Manifesto 12 recommendations are as follows:

1. Implement a national ‘Data Pledge’ to citizens that is supported by governments, private and non-governmental sectors

2. Address real world questions with joined up and disaggregated data

3. Empower and up-skill data users of the future through education

4. Examine existing frameworks and publish existing data

5. Build an information bank of data assets

6. Allocate funding available for better data according to national and sub-national priorities

7. Strengthen national statistical systems’ capacity to collect data

8. Implement a policy that data is ‘open by default’

9. Improve data quality by subjecting it to public scrutiny

10. Put information users’ needs first

11. Recognise technology cannot solve all barriers to information

12. Invest in infomediaries’ capacity to translate data into information that policymakers, civil society and the media can actually use

DI believes we need a data revolution that “sets a new political agenda, that puts existing data to work, that improves the way data is gathered and ensures that information can be used”, and argues that these 12 steps will get us there.

What do you think?

To share your views or find out more, get in touch.

First impressions of the new UN data revolution group

By Jeannet Lingan, Publish What You Fund.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon last week announced a new independent expert advisory group on the data revolution.

As an organisation that has been vocal in its support of the data revolution from the start, Publish What You Fund very much welcomes this initiative. It is great to see the UN paying attention to the discussion around the importance of high quality information to drive sustainable development efforts.

Our new Road to 2015 campaign (launched in July at the UN Development Cooperation Forum) is all about harnessing the power of open data to create meaningful change. It seeks to raise the profile of transparency and accountability in the post-2015 agenda – and we hope the creation of this group is an indication that the conversation is moving forward.

A lot of organisations have been talking about the data revolution in the past year, and there seemed to be general confusion over how the post-2015 agenda would address the issue. We hope the group will help bring clarity on this issue, and help define the positive outcomes this revolution has the potential to bring.

The expert advisory group will input to the Secretary General’s synthesis report on the Sustainable Development Goals, contributing specifically on chapter 4 (the accountability framework). We will be happy to contribute to their discussions and inputs, and will engage with the group as part of our Road to 2015 campaign.

With that in mind, we hope the advisory group will:

1.Produce recommendations on how to enhance access to information;

2.Focus on the users of this information, when discussing more and better quality information on sustainable development financing and results;

3.Draw on the potential that new technologies offer for transparency and accountability and how can we make it more accessible to different stakeholders.

The data revolution must by its nature be inclusive if it is to affect change. As such, I would have liked to see more civil society represented in the panel. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of work done by many actors in the transparency field, so I hope this will be a great opportunity for us all to share best practice and work together.

​Why we’re running the Road to 2015 campaign

Today we launched our new campaign, Road to 2015: Open Data for Sustainable Development. It’s the first campaign we’ve launched at the UN Development Cooperation Forum – in fact, it’s the first time we’ve come to the UN Headquarters in NYC, where the forum is being hosted.

But we had a good reason for choosing this forum, and this building.

In 2011, Publish What You Fund ran the very successful Make Aid Transparent campaign, with over 100 organisations joining the coalition and 65,000 individual signatures to the petition.

We presented the petition at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, and subsequently the world’s largest donors promised to publish their aid information to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) by the end of 2015.

But you know all this. And you know that since then, we’ve been reminding donors of their promises, helping them to put them into practice, and measuring their progress via the Aid Transparency Index.

Now, with 2015 around the corner, we are launching a new campaign to keep up the pressure. With just over a year left, the clock is ticking on those promises.

The world of development finance is also changing. Top-down development, with donors telling recipients what to do, is twentieth century thinking.

Partner countries are better equipped now, more than ever, to take full ownership of their development agenda. They have asked for more information about development cooperation spending so they can better manage their own resources, and ensure the delivery of results.

If donors don’t keep the original promise to citizens and recipient governments, they risk becoming irrelevant. But if they do, they can set a great example of good, open government, for others to follow, which is especially important as development flows, modalities and actors become more diverse.

If we don’t deliver on past promises, and aid information is not open and transparent by the end of 2015, how can we even talk about the future agenda?

Which brings me to why we launched the campaign at the UN Development Cooperation Forum: Those conversations are happening right here, right now.

And as debates on the next set of sustainable development goals and the post-2015 agenda come to a head, transparency must be an essential part of all goals, giving citizens more information and more say in their own lives.

In 2011, our Make Aid Transparent campaign galvanised public support for aid transparency, and since then we’ve been working tirelessly to translate commitments into action. The majority of the largest and most influential donor agencies are now publishing their aid information to IATI, but we need to finish the job we started.

The Road to 2015 must be paved with open data, not just good intentions.