ICT 4 aid transparency?

What can Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and digital data do for development and aid in terms of transparency? Are new technologies allowing development partners to share data more efficiently to facilitate planning and coordination of development assistance, and can those on the receiving end get a better idea of the when and if’s of the resources meant for them?

About 140 billion USD – that is almost 19 USD for each of the 7.6 billion people living on this planet – flowed across the world as Official Development Assistance (ODA) last year, according to OECD sources. And that excludes donations from individuals and private organizations.

Number 1 of the 10 commitments is greater transparency, which means providing more clarity on the where, when, how much and to whom all this money is going.

Also last year, more than 30 of the biggest donors and aid providers met in Istanbul to agree on a deal to make humanitarian aid more effective, referred to as the Grand Bargain. Number 1 of the 10 commitments made is to achieve greater transparency, which essentially means providing more clarity on the where, when, how much and to whom all this money is going. Similar commitments where made for the broader development cooperation sector in 2011 through the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation.

An increasing amount of stakeholders are requesting such information transparency, according to the OECD. Tax-payers in donor countries are demanding insights in how their ODA is spent. Donor governments in turn are peeking over each other’s shoulders to find out who will give what to whom, ideally with the goal of avoiding overlaps and pooling resources for enhanced impact. They are also increasingly asking receiving countries and implementing organizations to report on results, while these in turn are struggling to forecast donations in order to plan programmes and activities. And, still according to the OECD, the expected ‘beneficiaries’ or affected populations are increasingly aware of what has been targeted to their communities, and gradually request more information.

Self-reinforcing technology? – Creative Commons image

Supposing that the increasing demands for accountability at least to some extent depends on the increasing amount of easily available information in the news and on social media about disasters and discrimination, corruption and fraud in the aid industry does not seem too far-fetched. Information easily asks for more information.

Clearly, new communication technologies have important potential for facilitating information exchange in the development realm, just as is happening in most other areas of society. Digital data collection also has great potential to enhance evidence based decision making and planning. Yet little is the worth of all this information if we do not know how to handle it, or continue to act without consulting it.

The paper Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology concludes that technology can be self-reinforcing, in the sense that the invent of one set of technologies easily leads to the development of another, without necessarily questioning the actual need for or impact of it. Moreover, the broader capability of using new hard- and software and making sense of the outputs rarely develop at the same pace as technology.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) aims to address such challenges by making information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand. Within the context of the Grand Bargain, it is currently considered the most advanced option for a shared open-data standard, which is the main goal under the commitment for greater transparency.

In conclusion, increased transparency facilitated by new ICTs is indeed central for improving accountability and effectiveness within development cooperation and humanitarian aid. Still, its what we do with the information made available to us that will make the difference, if any.

2 Comments

  1. Pau Abad Tent

    I really enjoyed this article, maybe because it offers a glimpse of hope when thinking of the excess and misuse of information and data, not only in development world, but everywhere in this “age of noise” we live in now. As you state, information wants more information, and I see it very positive that both donors and beneficiaries are coming to the realization that NGO’s and development agencies can also do it wrong. I think transparency is always benefitial. However, “those on the receiving end” do not always appropiately understand the information or have the capacity to accurately analyze the data. I believe transparency is not only about showing numbers, but also about honestly explaining them, and even practicing self-criticism if needed. I don’t know if the International Aid Transparency Initiative take these issues into account. I hope it does.

  2. Marcia Munoz Caceres

    Thank you Clara for this interesting blogpost!
    This article really highlights and connects one of the challenges in data collection concerning accountability. Big data is, as you also mention, very important and sometimes key factor to political decisions and planning at the same time as it challenges the follow-up and accountability if its not analyzed properly and in the right time. Also related to aid transparency towards tax-payers and donors the analyzing of all the big data available is key. However, I really enjoyed reading the comment made by Pau commenting that this might also be seen as positive in the sense that the challenges allows NGOs and other aid agency’s to practice self-criticism.

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