The Path Towards International Aid Data Standards

Open data is more than just a national concern, as countries often share and compare information with each other. Thus, calls for transparency must also extend internationally. As you may recall from a previous post, one of the requirements outlined in out government’s National Action Plan (NAP) is that foreign aid funding be reported in internationally comparable data. The NAP advocates the two-part pledge of releasing reporting requirements and implementing requirements across U.S. agencies.

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) bulletin on U.S foreign assistance satisfies the first part of this pledge. Released in 2012, the bulletin offers guidance on the collection of data and institutes a “statutory requirement to provide foreign assistance data from all USG agencies.” According to the OMB, enhanced foreign assistance data reporting enables the achievement of the following goals:

  • Make foreign assistance more useful for development.
  • Increase the efficacy of USG foreign assistance.
  • Increase international accountability.

While the bulletin is clear and establishes the need to release foreign assistance data, the implementation of such policies is a more daunting task. Common data standards allow both inter-agency and international comparisons and would add value to the U.S.’s current foreign assistance datasets, but are difficult to put into practice. For example, many countries do not provide up-to-date information regarding aid projects; lack proper online databases to make information accessible; or report funds in differing currencies. Some fail to publish any foreign aid data at all. Insufficient data hinders developing nations from knowing what aid is – or is not – available and inhibits efficient humanitarian and international fund management.

To ensure progress toward international data standards, the Obama Administration signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in 2012. IATI is a “voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, development and humanitarian resources in order to increase their effectiveness in tackling poverty.” The Initiative unites aid donor and recipient nations, as well as other civil society groups, to work together to increase transparency and make aid information easier to access, use and understand.

To keep nations and agencies accountable, Publish What You Fund releases an annual Aid Transparency Index to IATI. The Index assesses and ranks agencies and countries on their ability to publish aid information and willingness to keep data up-to-date, accessible and available. While progress has been made, the average score for all 67 agencies analyzed is low; 25 agencies scored below 25 percent.

The need for increased aid transparency is imperative. According to Tanzania’s Policy Forum Coordinator Semkae Kilonzo, transparency increases civic engagement and makes aid management more efficient. “For example, if a village knows exactly how much is allocated for a specific school or a health project in their locale,” he said, “community members have much more incentive to then take part in tracking when the funds come through, whether activities are carried out, and to what end.”

Other world leaders and policy experts echo Kilonzo’s sentiments. “The World Bank sees openness and transparency as key to delivering better development results and strengthening accountability,” expressed Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank. Furthermore, USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg welcomes the transparency movement and hopes that efforts will expand over the coming years. As ATI representatives note, however, “the challenge now is to create a virtuous circle of more data use and higher data quality.”

For more information on why aid transparency matters, watch this video from ATI. And, look for more posts on open data, transparency, and international initiatives!

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