Simon Parrish from Aid Info
explained that IATI
aims to provide information that meets the needs of a number of diverse groups, is timely, is ‘compilable’ and comparable, improves efficiency and reduces duplication. Simon explained that IATI arose from the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness
and was launched as part of the Accra Agenda for Action
in 2008 due to a strong call from civil society to donors, multilaterals and northern NGOs for greater transparency.
Organizations felt they were already working hard to be transparent; however governments, journalists, tax payers and others looking for information were not able to find what they needed. Rather than each organization creating its own improved transparency and accountability system, the idea was to use an open data approach, and this is where IATI came in. Since Accra, transparency and accountability have gained global traction and IATI has been a key part of this movement for the aid sector.
Donor agencies, the World Bank, the EU, the US Government and others have already signed on to IATI
and have started to publish basic information. INGOs are also starting to come on board and schedule their dates for publication to the IATI standard
. It is hoped that over time the quality and amount of information published will improve and expand. For example, ‘traceability’ needs to be improved so that aid can be followed down the supply chain. Information from international and local NGOs is critical in this because the closer to the ground the information is, the better it can be used for accountability purposes.
Opportunities and Questions around IATI
To complement Simon’s overview, I shared ideas on some of the opportunities that IATI can offer, and some common questions that may arise within INGOs who are considering publishing their information to IATI.
For example, IATI can help catalyze:
- transparency and accountability as core values
- better coordination and program planning (internally and externally)
- reduced reporting burden (if donors agree to use IATI as a common tool)
- improved aid effectiveness
- collective learning in the aid sector
- improved legitimacy for aid agencies
- an opportunity to educate the donor public on how aid/development really works
- ‘moral ground’ for IATI compliant aid organizations to pressure governments and private sector to be more transparent
- space for communities and ‘beneficiaries’ to hold aid agencies more accountable for their work
- space for engaging communities and the public in identifying what information about aid is useful to them
- concrete ways for communities to contest, validate and discuss aid information, intentions, budgets, actions, results.
Concerns and questions that may arise within NGOs / CSOs around IATI include:
- Is IATI the right way to achieve the goal of transparency and accountability?
- Is the cost in time, money, systems, and potential risk of exposure worth the individual and collective gain?
- Is IATI the flavor of the month, to be replaced in 2-4 years?
- What is the burden for staff? Will it increase overhead? Will it take funds and efforts away from programs on the ground?
- What is the position of the US Government/USAID? Will implementing agencies have to report in yet another format (financial, narrative)?
- Much internal project documentation at NGOs/INGOs has not been written with the idea of it being published. There may be confidential information or poorly written internal documents. How will aid agencies manage this?
- What if other agencies ‘steal’ ideas, approaches or donors?
- What security/risks might be caused for sexual or political minority groups or vulnerable groups if activities are openly published?
- Isn’t IATI too focused on ‘upward’ accountability to donors and tax payers? How will it improve accountability to local program participants and ’beneficiaries’? How can we improve and mandate feedback loops for participants in the same way we are doing for donors?
- Does IATI offer ‘supplied data’ rather than offer a response to data demands from different sectors?
ICT Tools to support NGOs with IATI
Ruth Del Campo discussed some of the different tools that are available to support INGOs and smaller organizations with IATI reporting, including Open Aid Register (OAR)
which she created to support smaller organizations to comply with IATI. The Foundation Center
has created a tool to support Foundations to enter their information into the IATI Standard also. Aid Stream
is being used by many UK organizations to convert their data to the IATI Standard. Geo-visualization tools include CartoDB
IATI awareness in the US
Although tools exist and awareness around IATI is growing elsewhere, Ruth noted that in the US many organizations do not know what IATI is, and this is a problem. Another issue Ruth brought up is that most existing charity raters do not rate program effectiveness or program transparency. Instead, charities are judged based on overhead rates, growth, financial statements, and whether they are publishing certain information on their websites. These measures do not tell what an organization’s program impact or overall transparency are, and they do not trace funds far enough along the chain. Linking charity rating systems with IATI standards could encourage greater transparency and accountability and help the public make decisions based on program accountability in addition to financial accountability. (For background on INGO overhead, see Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices
Because many INGOs are not familiar with IATI, a greater dissemination effort is needed for IATI to be of optimal use. If only 20% of the aid picture is available, it will not be very helpful for coordination and decision making. Many INGOs feel that they are already transparent because they are publishing their annual reports as a .pdf file on their websites and they have an overhead rate within a certain percentage, but this is not enough. Much more needs to be done to gain awareness and buy-in from US INGOs, government, charity rating systems, donors, media and the public on transparency and IATI.
Following the 3 discussants, TSNYC participants jumped in for a good debate around key points:
Carrot or stick approach?
NGOs place great importance on their Charity Navigator
rankings and Better Business Bureau
reviews, and many donors select charities based on these rankings, so it will be important to link these with IATI. The Publish What You Fund index
, which tracks the transparency of different organizations, has been helpful in getting countries and institutions on board. The Foundation Center lists transparency indicators on their site GlassPockets
as well. The Brookings and CGD QuODA report
was mentioned as a key reason that the US Government signed onto IATI at Busan last November, since the US was ranked very low on transparency and saw that they could bring their ranking up by signing on.
Consensus at the Technology Salon was that it is not likely that the US Government or USAID will make IATI compliance mandatory for their grantees and implementing partners as DFID has done. Rather, the existing dashboard
for collecting information would be used to report into IATI, so the dashboard needs to be improved and regularly updated by US agencies. One concern was whether in this scenario, the information published by USAID would be useful for developing country governments or would only be of use to USAID Missions. On the bright side, it was felt that movement within the US Government over the past few years towards greater openness and transparency has been massive. TSNYC participants noted that there seems to be a fundamental mindset change in the current administration around transparency, but it’s still difficult to make change happen quickly.
Some members of the US Congress have latched onto the idea and are pushing for greater transparency and this could impact whether the IATI profile increases. Transparency and accountability are of interest to both major US parties. Liberals tend to be interested in the idea of being more open and sharing information; and conservatives tend to focus on value for money and stamping out corruption and lowering inefficient aid spending and waste. IATI can support with both and be a win for everyone.
Making IATI mandatory could, some cautioned, backfire. For example there are foundations and corporations that for a variety of reasons do not openly share information about their giving. If pressured, the tendency may be to shut down totally.
Showing what positive things can be done with IATI and how it can benefit CSO information management and coordination internally as well as externally was thought to be a better approach than positioning IATI as “we are being audited by everyone now.” IATI should be emphasized as an opportunity to join data together to know what everyone is doing, visualize the data using new technologies, and use it to make better program decisions and improve coordination as well as accountability. Some examples of vibrant and informative uses of IATI data include Mapping for Results
, Interaction’s Haiti Aid Map
and the Foundation Center’s comparison of Foundation giving and World Bank funding
Transparency as a ‘norm’
Many organizations are investing in transparency for reasons that go far beyond IATI compliance. Three kinds or organizations were identified at the Salon session: those who comply because it is mandatory; those who comply because it’s inevitable; and those who comply because they believe in the inherent value of transparency as a core principle. Even within organizations, some teams such as Democracy and Governance, may be much more interested in IATI than, say, Education, Health, or Arts teams, simply because of the themes they work on and their competing priorities. It is hoped that in 5 years’ time, it is no longer a question of mandatory or inevitable compliance, but rather transparency becomes the norm and it starts to feel strange to work in a space that is not transparent. Leadership is important to get an organization on board.
Challenges and opportunities in IATI compliance
Challenges to IATI compliance were discussed in depth at the Salon, including questions around the amount of resources needed to report to IATI. It was noted that the biggest challenges are organization, coordination, and change of attitudes internally. Some of the core obstacles that Salon participants noted include:
Time and resources
Some pushback might be seen around IATI because investment in IATI compliance may not be seen as providing an immediate return to individual organizations. TSNYC participants felt that rather than a constraint, IATI provided an opportunity for organizations to better manage their own information for internal sharing and use. IATI can help improve program planning, reduce time spent gathering program information from colleagues and across countries, and support better internal coordination among offices and partners. It was noted that when governments started publishing open data, the people who most used it were government employees for their own work. IATI can be seen as an investment in better internal coordination and information management. Once the information is available in an open format it can be used for a number of data visualizations that can show an organization’s reach and impact, or help a number of organizations share their joint work and impact, such as in the case of coalitions and thematic or sectoral networks.
Project document quality
Concerns may be raised in some organizations regarding the state of project documents that were not originally written with publication in mind. Organizations will have to decide if they want to work retroactively, invest in quality control, and/or change processes over time so that documentation is ready for publication.
Losing the competitive edge
TSNYC participants worried that without USAID mandatory compliance, some INGOs, and contractors especially, would not be motivated to publish information for fear of losing their competitive edge. It is feared that getting contractors to report to any level of detail will be difficult. This, the group discussed, makes peer pressure and public pressure important, and mechanisms to encourage broader transparency will need to be found. One idea was to create a ‘5 star system’ of IATI compliance so that organizations with full compliance get a higher star rating (something that Aid Info is already working on). Another angle is the hope that IATI reporting could replace some other mandatory reporting mechanisms, and this may be another entry point.
Accountability to whom?
It was recognized that IATI was initiated as a top-down approach to accountability. The question remains how to make IATI information more useful for ‘beneficiaries’ and program participants to track aid flows, and to contest and validate the information. What complaints mechanisms exist for communities where aid has not been effectively implemented? One point was that IATI is designed to do exactly that and that when it is more populated with information, then this more exciting part that involves playing with the data and seeing what communities have to say about it will start to happen.
Simon noted that there is a huge emerging civic hacker and ICT for social change movement. Access to aid information can be hugely liberating for people. At some aid transparency workshops the focus has been on what national NGOs and governments are doing. Young people are often angry that they don’t know about this. They often find the idea that the information is available to them very exciting. Much of the conversation at these meetings has been about ways to reach communities and about who can be involved as intermediaries.
IATI is still top down and the information that people need is bottom up. However the conversation is starting to happen. Infomediaries need to be multiple and varied so that there is not only one source of IATI data interpretation, but rather a variety of interpretations of the data. Social accountability processes like community score cards and social audits can be brought into the equation to extend the value of IATI information and bring in community opinion on aid projects and their effectiveness. Platforms like Huduma
are examples of making open data more accessible and useful to communities.
* * * * *
A huge thanks to our discussants Ruth Del Campo and Simon Parrish and to all those who participated in this 3rd Technology Salon NYC!
Contact me if you’d like to get on the list for future TSNYC invitations.
The Technology Salon™ is an intimate, informal, and in person, discussion between information and communication technology experts and international development professionals, with a focus on both:
- technology’s impact on donor-sponsored technical assistance delivery, and
- private enterprise driven economic development, facilitated by technology.
Our meetings are lively conversations, not boring presentations – PowerPoint is banned and attendance is capped at 15 people – and frank participation with ideas, opinions, and predictions is actively encouraged through our key attributes. The Technology Salon is sponsored by Inveneo and a consortium of sponsors as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges.
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