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