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Sampling IATI data round 1: Lessons learned

Thursday, July 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Ruth Salmon, Research Assistant at Publish What You Fund. Salmon is the lead on data collection for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund’s blog on July 7, 2014.

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Data collection continues for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index (ATI). And for the first time, we are sampling documents and data on the results, conditions and sub-national location published to the IATI Registry in XML format.

Sampling essentially means manually checking that the information provided is specific to that activity, has been appropriately tagged using IATI codes, and that it adheres to the ATI indicator guidelines.

The prospect of sampling documents and data for 16 ATI indicators, covering 25+ IATI standard elements, across 27 IATI publishers, was a daunting one. But we knew we had to plough our way through to ensure the information published about aid is relevant and of good enough quality to be used.

Yet this task turned out to be much more fun – and much less arduous – than we feared.

The good examples we found highlighted the potential of IATI data. There were plenty of things to get excited about. We’re happy to note in this first round of sampling that 82% of the 27 IATI publishers sampled passed the sampling checks for the indicators they publish.

The Good

As we clicked through the documents and IATI excerpts randomly selected for us by our sampling tool, there were many examples of good practice:

  • Subnational geo-coding: The European Commission’s Foreign Policy Instrument Services, the Netherlands, African Development Bank (AfDB)  and the World Bank are all publishing excellent geo-coded data, enabling us to see the coverage of project activities clearly within each country.drc-location
  • Results documents and data: Some results information clearly shows whether activities have achieved their intended outputs against stated goals. GAVI, Asian Development Bank (AsDB), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), World Bank, and DFID have some great results documents, and Global Fund, Sweden and Canada  have some good examples of structured data.mcc-results
  • Appropriate language use: Several organisations (IADB, AfDB, UNDP) are publishing documents and IATI data fields using the language of the recipient country, making it more accessible for in-country users.

The Bad

Some less than helpful trends emerged too…

  • Over tagging: Some organisations are linking many documents to a single IATI category code, even when the code isn’t relevant to that document. This effectively renders the use of codes meaningless, making it very difficult to find the information you seek.
  • Inaccessible data: On a few occasions we were unable to access documents because of broken links. The use of scanned PDFs also makes the data difficult to parse and scrape. Document links led to generic web pages, with no clues on how to find documents for specific activities. Some samples were difficult to understand due to the acronyms and shorthand used to describe information.
  • Incoherence within data: Occasionally the codes used in the IATI data didn’t match the documents tagged. For example, country strategies tagged as organization strategies. There are several cases where the data specifies that no conditions are attached but conditions documents, with clear conditions outlined, are tagged!

The Ugly

Finally, a tiny percentage the IATI data we sampled was incomprehensible. Activities had no titles or descriptions, and were just lists of unlabelled transactions. This makes the information fairly useless to pretty much everyone. Queue many unrepeatable mutterings, long sighs and exasperated researchers.

The reality hit that it’s not possible to truly celebrate IATI publication until it is done well. Done badly, it serves very little use at all.

In summary…

Sampling has showed us the potential of using XML for publishing aid data for a wide variety of organisations. The elements of the IATI code had been used in many different ways, depending on what fits best with organisation’s particular structure and activities. When accurate and well-coded, it became clear that IATI data makes it easy to compare aid spending across time, space and many organisation types.

But it has also shown that unless the IATI standard is adhered to, the information published runs the risk of being difficult to understand, difficult to access, and difficult to reuse. Although it’s our impression that the majority of the errors we found were unintentional, it’s important that they are fixed to deliver on the full potential of IATI – of comprehensive, comparable aid data.

Now with data collection complete for 2014, we’re busy finalising and analysing the dataset so we can see this year’s results. Watch this space!

Investing in Childhood: Building a Better Future for Mothers and Children in Afghanistan

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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A few weeks ago, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on how crucial it is to keep Afghanistan on the right track, so that the country can build upon the many gains and accomplishments already made. This will require continued investment, monitoring and accountability to ensure that short-term progress can evolve into long-term change for all Afghans, especially children and their families.

Save the Children has worked in Afghanistan since 1976. We have seen families struggle through decades of conflict and we know that an investment in children is the best way to build a better future for all Afghans. We have responded to droughts, floods and refugee crises in Afghanistan to help families when crisis strikes and we work every day to give children a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm—things that every child deserves, no matter where they’re born.

In the past several years, it has become clear that our investment—and the investment of donor governments, global partners and Afghan leaders—is paying off in the lives of families. The increased availability of basic health services and training of community health workers who bring care to families in remote areas means better health outcomes, especially for vulnerable women and children.

In Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report, for example, war-torn Afghanistan ranked as the toughest place on earth to be a mother in 2010 and 2011. This ranking is based on 5 key indicators: maternal mortality, child health, women’s educational opportunity, women’s economic status and women’s political representation—a lens through which to look at the experience of motherhood in countries around the world. Afghanistan’s place at the bottom of the list just a few short years ago speaks to the incredibly difficult circumstances in which Afghan mothers found themselves.

But in our latest report, released in May of this year, Afghanistan moved up an unprecedented 32 places in the ranking. This is thanks to the country’s investment in midwives, so mothers and newborns are safe at the dangerous time of birth; its dedication to providing lifesaving immunizations and other health interventions for newborns and young children; and its changing policies on education, so more girls can attend school.

Afghanistan has reduced maternal deaths by two thirds in 15 years, an almost unheard of accomplishment especially in a country experiencing ongoing conflict. In 2001, one of every four children born in Afghanistan died by the age of five; in 2014 that number is one in ten. These numbers are worth celebrating—it’s important to recognize the investment of so many partners who saw a reason to hope when the situation was bleak, and a reason to invest in children and mothers who deserved so much more.

Progress in education has been slower, especially for girls. Since 2002 the number of girls attending school increased by over 30%, although an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes.  Today, only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade.  This is a huge area for improvement—and further investment can help Afghan girls access the best possible tool to build a better world for themselves and their families: education.

As Afghanistan and the world awaits the results of last weekend’s presidential run-off election, it’s more important than ever to look to the future.  Afghanistan is a potential success story of the power of foreign assistance—but it still has a long way to go. With smart aid, partner collaboration and remembering that an investment in a child is always a good investment, we can help Afghan children and families write the next chapter of the country’s remarkable progress.

More U.S. agencies publishing aid data to international standard

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Publish What You Fund about the recent release of data by the State Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.

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In the last few weeks the Foreign Assistance Dashboard added two new U.S. agencies to its list of publishers.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its aid information on May 28 and the State Department on June 1.

Publish What You Fund welcomes this progress, but initial analysis raises some very basic quality issues.

In summary, the Agriculture Department publication includes obligation and spending data from five of the nine USDA agencies implementing foreign assistance programs. The State Department’s data comes from the State’s centrally-managed financial system and includes both grants and contracts for domestic foreign assistance obligations and expenditures.

Both publications present significant data quality issues. For example, some activities lack a project name or project description. The start and end dates are equally problematic as in many cases they have the start and end date 01/01/0001 [State Department activities can be seen at the bottom of this file].

While Publish What You Fund encourages the publication of more foreign assistance from U.S. agencies, equally concerning is the quality of the data and what challenges it presents to the user of this information.

The Aid Transparency Index (ATI) data collection will close on June 30 and the data analysis will be conducted in July and August. Thorough analysis of this information, along with other U.S. agencies and programs’ data (including the Department of Defense, PEPFAR, MCC, Treasury and USAID) will be published in autumn.

Stay tuned for more developments as we near the launch of the ATI.

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International aid groups applaud bipartisan legislation to reform international food aid programs

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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Washington, D.C.- This statement is delivered on behalf of the endorsing organizations: American Jewish World Service, Bread for the World, CARE, Church World Service, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, Oxfam America, Presbyterian Church USA, Save the Children, The Borgen Project, United Methodist Church: General Board of Church and Society.

As leading organizations working to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition around the world, we welcome the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2014 proposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) and African Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE). If enacted, this bipartisan legislation would provide up to 9 million more people with lifesaving aid at no additional cost by using taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

The bill modernizes U.S. food aid programs, removing outdated red tape and ensuring the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) can reach more of the world’s most vulnerable children and families quickly and effectively during times of crisis. The bill places food aid authorities into the Foreign Assistance Act while maintaining the objectives and core structures of the original program. It would allow USAID to run a 21st century food aid program with the flexibility needed to meet increasing demand from humanitarian crises. We urge members of the Senate to swiftly pass this bill and ensure it is signed into law.

“With a growing number of crises around the world and volatile food and fuel prices stressing aid budgets, it is imperative to build on the momentum achieved through reforms included in the Farm Bill and FY14 appropriations and maximize flexibility to ensure tax dollars get a bigger bang for their buck. We look forward to working with members of both parties to ensure long overdue reforms are passed into law.”

The United States is the world’s most generous donor of food aid, and U.S. international food assistance is one of the most important expressions of American leadership and values abroad. Food aid helps feed 55 million people in need around the world every year, supporting both emergency responses and programs that tackle chronic hunger and malnutrition. This Act responds to the numerous studies and reports that conclude that our system for delivering food aid is plagued by inefficiencies that, if improved, would result in reaching more hungry people more quickly and at no additional cost. One Government Accountability Office study found that because of existing outdated rules, it can take four to six months for U.S. food aid to be procured, shipped and distributed in recipient countries. During urgent crises, these delays can be a matter of life and death.

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The Way Forward: Bringing Accountability and Ownership into Focus

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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This past April, MFAN launched a new policy paper laying out a refreshed vision for The Way Forward on aid reform focused on two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars: accountability and country ownership. Last week, we convened the community for a public event to reflect on why these pillars of accountability and country ownership are central to our agenda and how they are being put into practice.

The event began with a reflection on the accomplishments that have been made to date on improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice from MFAN Honorary Co-Chair and Former Congressman Jim Kolbe. Kolbe also took the opportunity to stress the importance of codifying the many important reforms that have been made so that progress is not lost with the ushering in of a new Administration.

To highlight the pillar of accountability, we were joined by Samantha Custer and Dina Abdel-Fattah of AidData and Sally Paxton of Publish What You Fund for insightful presentations. AidData highlighted their geocoding work in Nepal to demonstrate how better data can lead to a broader dialogue and smarter decisionmaking, helping to illustrate the fact that accountability and ownership are mutually reinforcing. They also discussed the importance of mapping the universe of foreign aid in order to have greater impact. AidData also stressed the importance of building the capacity of people to actually use the data and how that will help drive the demand for more and better data. Meanwhile, Paxton took the opportunity to offer five key recommendations for better U.S. aid transparency: publishing high-quality data and using it often; sharing our data with the world; promoting the use of the International Aid Transparency Initiative; publish quality, timely, and comprehensive data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard; and accelerating progress to meet (our already made!) commitments to transparency. You can read about these recommendations in more depth here.

photoFollowing these presentations, MFAN Co-Chair George Ingram moderated a panel discussion featuring Sheila Herrling of the MCC, Tony Pipa of USAID, Asif Shaikh of CSIS, and Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive Worldwide. The panel discussed the importance of – and also the challenges that come with – country ownership. Herrling noted that there is a struggle between managing speed and efficiency with ownership and accountability. Shaikh made the point that ownership needs to be about all actors coming together to shape a vision for self-sustaining development, and Sharma used an example from Sri Lanka to highlight how sustainable development happens when it is demand driven.

Over the next two years we will be periodically taking stock of progress made and where things are lagging in the areas of ownership and accountability. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the community, the Administration, and Capitol Hill on the importance of these pillar issues to improving U.S. foreign aid policy and practice.