Development depends only to a minor extent on aid, but aid is nevertheless important to the livelihoods of many people in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. A number of researchers have pointed out that it is not knowledge about the type and the urgency of reform in the aid sector that is lacking. Instead, what is lacking are the right incentives for aid agencies to implement reform agendas. Some experts argue that aid agencies' primary role is - unfortunately - not to reduce poverty, but to mediate between the diverse and often conflictive interests within the aid business including their own. Aid ineffectiveness is the result of complex negotiations for scarce resources and priorities among stakeholders. Information is a key asset in this bargaining process. However, some stakeholders have much more information than others and can therefore pursue their interests much more successfully than others. Those with the least information in the bargaining process are the citizens in the North and the South. Transparent information can be THE most important lever for aid effectiveness. But transparency by itself does not automatically lead to more bargaining power of citizens.
1) Provision of data
The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), signed by Germany and 17 other donors, is about the provision of open, detailed, timely and comparable data. The program is scheduled to begin in the autumn of 2010. Until now, IATI only envisaged publishing project level information. Unfortunately, there is very little information about the IATI process and its relevance even among people working in the development sector. Who will challenge the donors and implementing agencies about their transparency commitments if there is hardly any knowledge about these commitments? Researchers, NGOs and donor representatives interested in aid effectiveness should make it a priority to inform about and lobby for the transparency of the aid agenda.
2) Dissemination of relevant information
For data to become information it needs to be restructured, at times aggregated, visualised, put into context and explained in the languages of different users with different interests. Development cooperation should collaborate closely with the growing Open Data movement working on issues such as data retrieval, open data formats, visualisation, civic engagement and government accountability. The information needs to be disseminated through multiple channels to reach users. The aid transparency movement should therefore collaborate with experts in media, including social media.
3) Use of information
The use of even the most transparent information is not self-evident. Citizens will only use relevant information. For people to benefit from information, it is necessary that this information in some form affects their lives (such as the local provision of health care services). In general, for citizens to make the most of the information provided, they need to be educated about why aid information is relevant, e.g. how the environmental degradation in far away places affects them. Therefore current public diplomacy efforts in the realm of development politics should be strengthened.
If citizens and NGOs use information and step up efforts to voice their interests in the bargaining process, will donors respond? Findings of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) suggest that donors claim to be interested in feedback from citizens, but tight planning processes and focus on management for results actually do not allow for such feedback.
As long as the vital interests of donors and implementing agencies are not touched by transparency measures, they will not respond. To reach this threshold, civil society organisation will need to gain in political strength through capacity building where needed and through much more cooperation among NGOs and other stakeholders.
It is unlikely that the drive to reform the aid sector by improving aid effectiveness will come from within the aid system, because many organisational incentives do not support these reforms. Therefore civil society in collaboration with researchers and other stakeholders will need to campaign more actively for reform. Transparency of aid information is a mighty tool in this process, but transparency alone will not do the job.
Claudia Schwegmann is the founder of OpenAid and member of the technical advisory group (TAG) of IATI. OpenAid is lobbying for aid transparency and public online monitoring.
- Cecilie Wathne: Need for a New Paris Declaration
- Owen Barder: Spotlight on Transparency
- Lawrence Haddad: Six Ways to Improve Aid Effectiveness