Earlier this year, the global campaign for aid transparency “Publish What you Fund” released the 2018 Aid Transparency Index. The report compares 45 major international donors in relation to how they provided the public with information about their work in the past year across 36 indicators in 5 areas: organizational planning and commitments, finance and budgets, project attributes, joining up development data, and performance. The Inter-American Development Bank was categorized as “Very Good” (the highest-scoring category) for the second year in a row.
More timely aid and development data is being made openly available than ever before.
Overall, the results of the 2018 report reflect good news. For example, 93% of organizations evaluated in the index are now publishing in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard, which means more timely aid and development data is being made openly available than ever before. Around half of the organizations are publishing essential information monthly on their aid and development spending. Compare this to just a quarter of organizations reported in the 2016 Index.
Although this should be applauded, the mere publishing of timely data is not enough to achieve the full vision of the open data movement. To increase its value, the data also needs to be comprehensive and cover all aspects of development projects, including, but not limited to, financial and performance-related data. At Publish What You Fund, we have several recommendations to improve open data provided by multilateral organizations about their international development work.
What is IATI data?
The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is a global initiative “to improve the transparency of development and humanitarian resources and their results to address poverty and crises” through a common standard. The IATI standard provides a set of rules and guidance for organizations like the IDB to publish information on their development projects. In doing so, it allows users to access this information in a common format and single point of access, making it easier to get a complete picture of development projects and helping to drive effective development.
How can development organizations improve the quality of their IATI data?
1 Assure the publication of clean, accurate data
More data, made available on a more regular basis, does not necessarily translate into usable data if the basics are lacking. For example, more than a quarter of organizations do not provide descriptions of their projects at all or the descriptions provided cannot be understood by those outside the organizational context. Understandable titles, clear descriptions, accurate dates and activity statuses, as well as sub-national locations and sectors are gateway pieces of information that allow non-experts to access and use the data. This way donors, publishers and members of the public can harness the potential use of such information.
Provide correct country codes, activity dates and statuses
Many activities published to the IATI Registry have apparently inaccurate dates and activity statuses, including dates which are invalid, impossible (dates in the future, for example) or simply missing. Some activities are marked with an ‘implementation’ status, even though any physical activity appears to have finished several years previously. For some projects, publishers fail to provide recipient country codes or use invalid codes. These sorts of errors can discourage users’ trust in the data as they will not be able to find the information they need.
Most IATI tools, including those used by partner countries and CSOs, rely on this basic information – for example, to filter for activities in a given recipient country. As described in the IATI Standard, activity dates and statuses should be linked so they correspond. If an activity changes (it is extended or cut short, for example) the data should be updated to reflect this and avoid any misleading transaction information. Publishers should ensure they follow the IATI Standard by using ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes for recipient countries.
2 Consider the user’s experience to find and reuse the data
Finding specific and useful data on a website can be tricky. Even if the information is available, it can be hidden down a rabbit hole of links or nestled among unrelated documents. The same can be true when searching IATI data. For instance, Publish What You Fund found one single activity which contained more than 70 documents tagged as ‘review of project performance and evaluation’. The information needed was hidden in plain view among mislabeled content. Donors should use appropriate codes that form the standard. Adding extra document metadata, such as document dates, also helps but only six of the publishers included in the Index use this feature in their activity data.
Choose an open format for publishing
Data published in more useful formats score more points. The report’s scoring rewards publication in standardized, machine-readable and/or open formats like IATI XML, XLSX and CSV, as these facilitate better analysis, comparability and visualization compared to text documents. For more details on the scoring system and why IATI xml is scored highly, see the 2018 Aid Transparency Index Technical Paper, p.11.
3 Improve the publication of performance data
Improving performance data helps ensure lessons can be learned and best practices shared. If aid and development work is to deliver on its objectives and allocate budgets on that basis, current information on objectives, results and evaluations should be made available and accessible to everyone.
The pieces of information critical to assess project and donor impact are the most difficult to find. Only two organizations – the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – publish on all Index indicators in the IATI Standard.
Despite donors’ focus on setting targets, demonstrating results and ‘value for money’, the performance component in the Index has the most severe data gaps. Collectively, donors only score 27% on average for the performance component. The performance component includes pre-project impact appraisals, reviews and evaluations, and results. These are the three least published indicators. For example, only 15 organizations, including the IDB, publish results on their current projects. Access to this information is critical so that donors, partner country governments and CSOs can monitor projects effectively, assess whether objectives were met or learn from them.
4 Collaborate proactively in making the picture complete
The picture of aid and development finance is becoming clearer but without some of the major international donors, it remains incomplete. All donors should make comprehensive information on their activities open and readily available. Additionally, organizations with high levels of transparency in a specific country or sector should share best practice and work with others to support their efforts.
The stakes are too high for aid and development cooperation to be guess work. The fight against poverty and inequality to support long-term development must rest on the foundation of timely, comparable and accessible information that is open to all.
This article was derived from the 2018 Aid Transparency Index with the permission of the authors, Elise Dufief, Andy Lulham, and Ines Schultes from Publish What You Fund.