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Posts Tagged ‘aid transparency’

A tailored U.S. extension adds value, but our work isn’t done yet

Monday, August 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Catalina Reyes, Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund.

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When the U.S. made its first foray into the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), it adopted a “whole of government” approach. While there is merit to having various agencies of government speaking with one voice, this also creates problems when it comes to publishing quality data.

We were very encouraged when the U.S. changed course on this and adopted the IATI standard, with a tailored U.S. extension. This is consistent with other donors’ practices and means we’re now all reading from the same page – or at least from the same list of fields.

It might seem like a technical detail, but the U.S. extension is a big step forward, and we want to congratulate the government for using IATI as a basis for agencies’ publication to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.Dashboard image(1)

MCC has already used this new extension to publish to the Dashboard, and we can confirm the data output is identical to the data input. Since the IATI standard is the only globally agreed standard for publishing aid information, it makes sense to use this when requesting information from donor agencies.

Of course, while this is a big step forward, our work is not yet done. Call me a perfectionist, but  I think U.S. data should be among the most detailed and useful of all major donors.

As the Dashboard and the various U.S. agencies continue to work on their commitments made at Busan, our key recommendations for improvements are:

Collect better data. Encourage agencies to input high quality information from the beginning of the project cycle. We know we can’t go back five years ago but USG should inform missions and staff working on information gathering about the changes happening in HQ.

Don’t lump all the data together.Segment aid data by agency, rather than aggregating into a single file per country. This will help to protect the quality of each agency’s data and preserve its integrity. If one agency improves orbreaks its data, it’s clear where the problem lies, and it doesn’t affect other agencies. This is important in encouraging frequent and steady improvements in the data over time.

Smooth the publication process. Automate publication directly to IATI, instead of relying on a manual transfer of data from agencies to foreignassistance.gov. The Dashboard and IATI are now using the same information fields. This means that the Dashboard can consume IATI data. And it should.

Automate generation of IATI data by agencies. Agencies should generate their IATI XML information from their own systems. This should be the goal and encouraged by the Dashboard. This should be a priority for State, USAID and MCC; others such as HHS, USDA and Treasury should then follow suit. We have some specific agency recommendations:

  • USAID should follow MCC’s lead and make sure data generation is as close to systems as possible, thereby likely resulting in higher data quality, bringing skills in-house and making the process sustainable and automated in the medium term. The aim should be to get the basic data right first, and then quickly move on to incorporating the sub-national geo-coding and project documents that are available elsewhere on USAID’s websites.
  • State needs to bring data generation closer to the Department’s own systems and make these able to speak to each other. This means that the data should come straight from the systems and undergo minimal or no manipulation. In doing this State should prioritize basic information such as project titles and dates for remaining projects that don’t have them.
  • PEPFAR should identify its activities as OGAC activities and not just State activities (e.g., identify that it’s OGAC within State Department), as they have different purposes and objectives, and should be a key champion of traceability down the chain of implementers.

There are positive changes happening within U.S. agencies and within the Dashboard and we think the adoption of the IATI standard is an important one. However, more is needed to achieve the Busan deadline of 2015. And the emphasis has to be on the quality of aid information if it is to be really useable by donors, partner countries and other users.

Our 2014 Aid Transparency Index is out soon, with more details about progress in the U.S. and globally. Stay tuned!

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!

ForeignAssistance.gov Is Getting Bigger; Here’s How to Make It Better

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sarah Rose, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. The piece originally appeared on CGD’s blog on June 23rd.

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We’re getting closer to knowing how the USG spends its foreign assistance dollars.  Recently, the State Department announced its first release of foreign assistance data on the ForeignAssistance.gov website (also known as “The Dashboard”).  This may not sound terribly glamorous, but it’s actually important news.  Since State’s spending makes up over a third of all US foreign assistance spending, the absence of its data has been a huge gap. With this recent State Department move, spending data for agencies responsible for 96 percent of US foreign assistance are now online. It’s great to see the Dashboard—now in its fourth year—slowly coming together. As it does, here are a few thoughts on why it’s still a good investment, the big challenges it faces, and how it can be improved.

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

If well implemented, the Dashboard, an online resource of US foreign assistance spending (and potentially other) data, can:

  • Increase accountability and transparency: One of the Dashboard’s main goals is to enable easier access to information about US foreign assistance investments by US citizens, Congress, other US agencies, along with citizens and governments in recipient countries.
  • Ease agencies’ reporting burden (eventually): Behind the Dashboard lies a massive database that will eventually contain all of the underlying information necessary not just to populate the online interface but also to fulfill USG’s other regular reporting, like IATI, the Greenbook, and the OECD-DAC’s Creditor Reporting System.  Once the Dashboard/IATI process is automated within the agencies, complying with all this reporting should become much more streamlined and, importantly, more institutionalized.
  • Create incentives for improved data quality: Publishing data can change the dynamic around data quality.  The prospect of increased scrutiny can create an incentive for agencies to reinforce internal systems to produce cleaner, better organized data which can, in turn, bolster an agency’s own understanding of its internal operations.

Why It’s Taking So Long

The Dashboard was announced in 2010.  The effort is led by State’s F Bureau, which coordinates with the (over 20!) USG agencies that deliver some form of foreign assistance, and collects, codes, and publishes their data submissions. Some agencies, however, are far more capable of reporting to the Dashboard than others.  What’s so hard about data reporting, you may ask?  Quite a few things, it turns out, including:

  • Existing information systems’ incompatibility with Dashboard requirements.  Different agencies have different financial and project management information systems.  In fact, individual agencies often have multiple, separate systems.  Most of them long predate any notion of “open data” and are simply not designed to compile information in the way the Dashboard needs it.  Changing IT systems is a massive, costly undertaking.
  • Foreign assistance funds must be parsed out from a broader portfolio.  For agencies whose core mission isn’t foreign aid, internal systems weren’t set up to differentiate between foreign assistance and domestic spending. This makes it difficult to identify what’s right for the Dashboard and what’s not.  MCC has it easy in this respect (foreign aid only); the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, does not (mostly domestic).

At this point, the Dashboard team over at State is focused principally on providing data (i.e., getting more agencies on board) as well as pushing for improved data quality.  The team is pursuing a phased approach to populating the web portal, publishing agencies’ data as they have it ready.  It’s a courageous move for the USG to publicly release information knowing that it’s incomplete (and highly imperfect). Yet, they recognize that an incremental approach maintains pressure for continued implementation and fosters competition among agencies.  It may also help ease the culture shift towards transparency by gradually demonstrating that openness doesn’t have to be threatening.

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

  • A user can’t easily tell if data are complete—and often they’re not.  By illustration, this graphicshows agency-by-agency reporting to the Dashboard. You’ll see that not a single year contains information from all agencies (2006 to current), and that most agencies have reporting gaps.  It’s great that the Dashboard is frank about this, but the problem is that this is not clearly indicated where it needs to be.  For instance, if you wanted to find out about aid to Tanzania from 2008 to 2012, you would probably go directly to the Tanzania page and assume that what you pulled for “all agencies” means just that.  You’d be wrong. Only MCC and Treasury have 2008 data on the Dashboard, so “all agencies” means just those two for that year.  More broadly, it’s hard for a user to tell easily if data that don’t show up are absent because they don’t exist (e.g. DOD didn’t spend foreign assistance money in Country X in a given year) or because it’s missing (e.g. DOD did spend foreign assistance money in Country X that year but hasn’t reported it). The Dashboard does include caveats about data limitations but they’re unintuitively scattered in way too many locations that aren’t near where users are looking at data.  So they’re only helpful if a user thinks they should have a question about data quality or comprehensiveness and actively seeks this information.
  • Transaction-level data are incomplete (and sometimes unintelligible). Some important fields are missing from most agencies’ submissions.  For example, State is uniformly missing project title and description making it nearly impossible for a user to tell what he or she is looking at.  MCC has titles, but not descriptions.  USAID has descriptions for most of its transactions, but many of these merely replicate the title, are unintuitive to outsiders, refer to supporting documents that are unavailable, and/or cut off mid-description.  Start and end dates are also complicated.  For USDA they’re missing.  USAID provides only the year; MCC provides only the start date. State’s date reporting is spotty and contains apparently inconsistent information, like disbursements that happen before start dates.

Getting the data out there is important, and it’s the right thing to do.  But doing so while simultaneously improving coverage and quality gives me two related (though opposite) concerns.  I’m worried that:

1)      People Will Use the Data and draw incorrect conclusions due to missing or poor quality data; and/or

2)      People Won’t Use the Data because they are aware of its current limitations and will write off the Dashboard as an unreliable source, regardless of whether data coverage and quality improve later.  In a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, lack of use could in turn slow Dashboard progress, since, to some extent, agencies need to know people will use the data before they invest scarce resources to provide it and improve its quality.

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

State’s Dashboard team and the 20+ agencies with foreign assistance spending are working hard to make the Dashboard a useful, relevant tool.  It’s a big undertaking.  Here are four things I hope they are considering:

1)      Help users better understand the data: The main risks to the Dashboard come from incomplete and thus unreliable data.  Breadth and reliability are key requirements for data to be truly useful. Therefore, the Dashboard should be abundantly clear when users are looking at complete versus partial information, or preliminary versus final data. Users should not have to dig through multiple, separate “additional information” pages to find this out.

2)      Improve transaction data:  Agencies should strive to fill the gaps in their transaction data (especially critical things like titles that facilitate rolling up transactions to the project level), as well as improve the comprehensibility of the information (for example, make descriptions descriptive).

3)      Don’t forget about usability: The current priority of the Dashboard is to publish as much data as possible in manipulable format and let users work with it as they wish.  However, a single user interface is never going to be able to meet the needs of all stakeholders, so the USG should reinforce its efforts to: (i) define who their priority audiences are; and (ii) understand how these different groups want to use the data and tailor the interface accordingly.  The Dashboard team is already taking steps in this direction with outreach to country missions and US-based stakeholders.

4)      Publish agency specific implementation schedules: The Dashboard website does explain where each agency is in the implementation process. But, it should also include agency-by-agency schedules for reporting compliance (and not just with Dashboard requirements, butwith IATI requirements, too).  This would not only provide an accountability structure that would help motivate continued momentum, it would also serve as an important signal of commitment.

U.S. Pace on Aid Transparency Won’t Cut it for 2015 Deadline

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
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Development leaders from around the globe will gather in Mexico City next week for the first high-level meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. The Global Partnership was established at the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan in 2011 and brings together a wide range of development actors working towards more effective, sustainable, and impactful development results. Today, 161 countries and 54 organizations have endorsed the Global Partnership Principles, including the United States.

Next week’s meeting offers up a chance to evaluate donors’ progress on their commitments to the Principles, including one focused on transparency requiring that donors publish all aid data to a common, open standard by December 2015. The U.S. endorsement of the Global Partnership Principles goes hand in hand with the commitment made by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), also announced at Busan.

MFAN has joined with many other individuals and organizations in an effort spearheaded by Publish What You Fund to call on USAID Administrator Raj Shah and Secretary of State John Kerry to increase aid transparency efforts ahead of the GPEDC meeting. The supporting individuals and organizations have sent letters to Administrator Shah and Secretary Kerry outlining key recommendations, including:

  • Accelerate efforts to publish timely, comprehensive and forward-looking data on all development flows in accordance with IATI and improve the quality of published data;
  • Ensure information on development cooperation is compatible and aligned with partner countries’ budgets and systems;
  • Support specific actions to improve access, dissemination and use of this data by all stakeholders at country level.

With 2015 just around the corner, the U.S. needs to pick up the pace on publishing timely, comprehensive, and forward-looking data if it is to meet its important commitment to aid transparency. We hope this gathering will provide a much-needed kick-start to that process.

Open the books on foreign aid

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
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See below for excerpts from an op-ed by Albert Kan-Dapaah, co-founder and executive director of Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa and former Ghanaian minister and parliamentarian. This piece originally appeared in the Hill’s Congress blog.

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“Civil society in recipient countries must fight for accountability and transparency of poverty reducing aid in their respective countries, but we can’t do that without timely and comprehensive data on where U.S. aid dollars are going in their country.”

“Some donor agencies, including USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, do provide much needed information and data.  Unfortunately the publicly available information, in most cases, is not detailed enough nor released in a timely enough manner to be relevant for citizens in Ghana. And for civil society activists, like myself, in order to do our work to ensure foreign aid transparency and accountability, that information is power.  And such information is not always readily available within our own governments—indeed most times we are denied access to such data, making the data released by donors agencies the only information available to us.”

“Informed citizens, both here in the U.S. and in developing countries, can hold their government accountable on how foreign aid funds are spent. Organizing and providing data to meet the needs of civil society activists in their quest to monitor, evaluate and pronounce on the effective use of foreign assistance is key.”