When the US made the important commitment to aid transparency in Busan in 2011, it was applauded as a significant step toward more effective, evidence-based foreign assistance. The transparency road has been a bit bumpy, but some recent work by USAID in Bangladesh gives us some important reasons to cheer.
The US joined other major donors and agreed to publish information on how and where they disburse their aid to the common standard, known as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). IATI now has almost 550 publishers globally: governments, multi-laterals, NGOs, development banks, foundations and the private sector are all there. Some important features of IATI include
Everyone publishes in the same format – allowing for easy comparison
Everyone publishes at least quarterly – providing timely information
Everyone registers their aid information in the same place – creating a one-stop shop
It contains project level information – providing descriptions, locations and results of activities, as well as financial information
The US has taken its commitment to aid transparency seriously. Across the more than 20 US agencies that implement some form of US foreign assistance, work has been underway to turn the 2011 IATI promise into reality.
Publish What You Fund has been tracking this progress through the Aid Transparency Index, focusing on the six US entities that are most significantly involved in foreign assistance. Although each has faced its own implementation issues, the lack of an overall management plan coupled with outdated systems have been two of the biggest obstacles to publishing IATI data. MCC has consistently been a leader in transparency, but other agencies are also working hard to improve as evidenced in our 2016 Index.
USAID is one such agency. Although it got off to a slow start, it has systematically worked to improve its IATI information. In 2015, it published a costed management plan that laid out four phases to fulfill its IATI commitment. It completed 3 of the 4 steps and has folded the fourth into USAID’s Development Information Solution (DIS), the overall plan to improve all management information. Encouragingly, it has also been looking creatively at other ways to improve its aid information.
Here’s one really good example
A number of partner countries have systems for managing and sharing their aid information, typically called Aid Information Management Systems (AIMS). Bangladesh uses its AIMS to collect and make public its donor information. Fifteen of the donors in Bangladesh are using IATI to automatically enter this data quarterly; USAID was doing it manually. Headquarters and the Bangladesh mission, with some advice from Friends of Publish What You Fund, worked together to improve USAID’s data, which then allowed it to automatically feed IATI data into the AIMS.
This saved mission staff time – estimated to be up to two working days each quarter – and the use of IATI also improved the accuracy, quality and completeness of the data. After presenting the findings to all interested USAID staff, the agency is now rolling this change out to other missions.
Gaining twice: Saving time and user-friendly data
Most importantly, this work represents significant steps by USAID to make its data more user-friendly. The pilot work uncovered that roughly 60% of its IATI data in Bangladesh related to administrative expenses, some of them quite small. Although this commitment to transparency is good, the practical result is that the number of small administrative transactions made the data more difficult to use. To address this, USAID restructured their data into projects, with individual transactions grouped with those projects. The end consequence will be the same level of transparency, but a more usable set of data.
US aid data has frequently – and fairly — been criticized for its quality and timeliness. However, it is equally important to take note of agency action when, like here, it smartly and effectively improves the quality and usability of USAID’s information, while streamlining processes that save staff time.
This work was done with little fanfare but deserves its own applause.