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Transparency: What is Next?

A few days ago Friends of Publish What You Fund published an independent assessment focused on the progress made by U.S. government agencies and civil society on the transparency agenda. As George Ingram, Chair of that organization’s board, noted in a blog published last week: “Although progress has not been as fast as many of us would have liked, the past decade has brought a sea change in aid transparency.” Data transparency has gone from a rather obscure obsession of a few policy wonks to being viewed as an essential ingredient in aid effectiveness.

Yes, the report notes that much remains to be done. And it is also true that US government agencies have struggled to make the Obama administration’s commitment to publishing to the International Aid Transparency Index (IATI) a reality. But as CEO of Plan International USA I made the decision to publish to IATI almost over 3 years ago. I learned that aspiration is not reality. And the reality is that (as the report also notes) following through on our (or any agency’s) IATI commitment requires thoughtful implementation planning, process designs or redesigns and perhaps systems upgrades. This of course requires resources (People! Money! Time!). The resources needed for IATI compliance are also the resources needed for the more immediate need of the mission. So tradeoffs abound.

So I will give credit where credit is due. Despite these challenges, U.S. government agencies have made tremendous progress. The Aid Transparency Index produced by Publish What You Fund ranks the MCC at no. 2 in 2016 when it comes to IATI commitments. No USG agency is less than “Fair.”

The report also shows that U.S. Civil Society has played an important role encouraging this forward progress by the U.S. Government. But it also suggests that nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. space have hardly advanced themselves when it comes to publishing to IATI. A handful of U.S.-based International NGOs were publishing to IATI in 2013 when Plan started. A (slightly larger but nevertheless) still small handful of US-based INGOs are publishing to IATI today. It is difficult to be effective advocates for more transparency if we are struggling with execution ourselves. As the report notes, a “carrots approach” (e.g. providing a boost in evaluation criteria to those publishing to IATI) may work best.

In his blog, George also noted that “To move forward, the U.S. needs to not only double down on improvements to its IATI data but also deepen commitments in two specific areas: humanitarian assistance and gender-related data.” These recommendations are nicely outlined in a companion piece to the Lessons Learned document.

All I can say is, ‘Yes, Please!’

At the World Humanitarian Summit, donors and aid organizations agreed to commitments that would help ensure humanitarian financing better serves the needs on the ground. This “Grand Bargain” committed every part of the humanitarian assistance ecosystem to improving the traceability of aid flows and to publish within the next two years to a single standard: IATI. All of us who advocated for this should be realistic about what we have “bargained” for. And we need to take a page out of the Lessons Learned document, which means that we need to begin planning and investing in better systems and reporting now. We will also want to be coldly realistic about what is doable and by when. Can we aspire to publish all humanitarian aid flows from the start?

Probably not. But could we agree to work towards ensuring recovery and rehabilitation flows are published even as we recognize emergency funding will be a bigger lift and take longer than two or even five years? One thing is for sure, following through on the commitment to publishing aid flows to IATI is key to following through on other elements of the Grand Bargain, such as the commitment to ensuring local needs and voices are heard (including the voices of the most marginalized) or that humanitarian relief and development activities are better linked and leveraged.

Finally, a word about the recommendation made by Friends to champion eliminating the “gender-data deficit.”

Plan recently published its report ‘Counting the Invisible’. This report launches the second phase of our Because I am a Girl campaign. Why do we care about data? As the Plan report notes, of the 14 indicators used to measure Sustainable Development Goal only three are regularly collected in most countries and have agreed statistical methodologies. We may know how many girls are in school for example. But we do not adequately measure how many leave school for various reasons, including marriage, pregnancy, sexual violence, school fees/lack of employment opportunities leaving school. And most official sources collect data for girls 15-49. Currently no credible statistics exist worldwide that show the real life challenges of girls, such as how many drop out of school due to early marriage, pregnancy or sexual violence, or how many girls become mothers under the age of 15.

The bottom line? Achieving the SDG targets is about social accountability; it is about empowering women and girls as effective advocates for their own rights.

Data is needed to both empower movements of social transformation and transform civil society organizations like Plan. Data alone will not address all the issues but good data, timely data access and analysis is a start.

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