Aid transparency-From standards to innovative accountability and action

When everyone can see how much aid is being spent where, and on what, governments whether giving or receiving aid – can be held accountable by their citizens for spending it well
(Karin Christiansen, director of the global campaign for aid transparency, Publish What You Fund)

I agree with the importance of more and better aid data as I have expressed already in previous posts. I also think that the International Aid Transparency Initiative is important. But agreeing on standards for aid transparency is only a first and relatively small step and linking transparency to real, new, innovative 21st century accountability and participatory ideas will be the much bigger challenge.

How can citizens hold a government accountable over something that has been and will essentially be a political issue that management tools and technocratic fixes can’t ‘solve’? And I don’t mean in the traditional ‘every four years there are elections’ way. And, at least equally important, how can said citizens hold a multinational organisation accountable? And I don’t mean in the traditional ‘your country sends a representative to the budget/audit committee’ way. I don’t have brilliant answers, but I also still curb my enthusiasm over more aid data for a few reasons.

Data fatigue
Daniel Kaplan's interesting post on 'Open public data - then what?' outlines a few scenarios in the ‘post-Wikileaks’ information age and one is focussing on 'data fatigue'. Data can be very boring and the more data is out there, the less focussed debates will be and the more expertise from experts who are not exactly ‘normal citizens’ will be necessary. Do we/they care really that much about foreign aid? One of Kaplan'n conclusions is that '[a]fter a few initial contributions to FixMyStreet and the likes, citizens become tired of having to do their municipality’s job. Open data hasn’t done much harm, but not much good either'-definitely a risk for aid transparency as well.

The ‘wrong’ debates?
Once data is in the public domain, it will not only be used for informed, complex and civilised discussions, but also for populist contributions, most likely from the conservative, right-of-centre community who wants to see the UN abolished sooner rather than later. Development has always been faced with criticism and this would just add another facet to it, but how does this link to the main question here, which is ensuring timely accountability and broad participation? Maybe you can fire/retire a bureaucrat or stop a programme, but then again these are typical political reactions and don’t seem to be suitable for the ‘new era of aid’ that the IATI seems to be promising to some observers. Even if there will be a broad discussion along the lines of Wikileaks and their war logs, we still haven’t achieved any accountability in the sense that a government or an organisation is actually changing anything. If the US administration gets away with the war logs, how can we be sure that more, better and potentially critically data leads to change and learning-if that’s what ‘citizens’ really want.

How to link politics, accountability and the complexity of international development
The Daily Telegraph (see above comment on right-of-the centre critiques...) posted an article a few days ago entitled  'WikiLeaks cables: millions in overseas aid to Africa was embezzled'. This interesting story, based on the embassy leaks, about ‘waste’/waste in a UK aid project in an African country could be a one example of future debates once data becomes available. The bottom line from the government was, I'm paraphrasing, ‘yes, some funds weren’t used properly, but this was an important and successful project worth the risk’. That maybe so and in the future we may imagine that such data would be available without Wikileaks and secret documents, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue: There was a political consideration for doing this project and that needed to be balanced with the need of implementing a ‘successful’, transparent, fair etc. project. Was the waste/’waste’ acceptable or not? The short answer: It depends...

Accountability, citizens and jobs in the aid industry
Interestingly, a link on ‘citizens’ in the latest DevEx newsletter that welcomed the aid transparency initiative and featured the quote at the beginning of my post linked to an article about Australian Aid.
It featured a comment of a professor and of an NGO. As much as they represent ‘the citizens’ and are part of civil society, they are also part of the (global) elite of people who get involved in development, are knowledgeable, but are also part of development as a growing industry (myself included...). I sometimes wonder where ‘the citizens’ are who would like to learn more about development spending and how they usually express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with development. Right now, the debates around aid transparency seem to be driven by a relatively exclusive circle of voices that hardly have a ‘democratic mandate’. What is the future of aid transparency and accountability beyond a blog post, working paper, expert panel or research project?

From data to action – Still a long way to achieve more accountable aid
Again, I just want to stress that I’m not against aid transparency and that the recent developments are an interesting starting point for more debates on participation, accountability and the complexity of aid and that all of us have to try to use data to really engage with ‘the people’ outside the conference circle in Paris, academia or the blogosphere. And I do look forward to reading more about innovative ideas and case studies where data, citizens and accountable debates on development are brought together.


  1. Great points. See also the debate between Scott Gilmore and Till Bruckner at:

  2. Tobias

    Thanks. Even the most passionate advocates of aid transparency, of whom I'm one, would argue that transparency is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the kinds of accountability that we want to see.

    But you write as if there are no good examples of where transparency and accountability have made huge improvements. Although the examples are still too few and far between to constitute a body of evidence, they are remarkably consistent in finding that, provided with information and the tools to hold service delivery organisations to account, the improvements in resource use and in service quality can be remarkable.

    Like you, I see this as a starting point: but it is an important necessary first step.


  3. Thanks Jennifer and Owen for your comments+link. I don't doubt that aid data and transparency can have 'real' measurable and observable impact along the lines you describe. I guess I'm just a little concerned about the notion of 'doing it for the citizens' as I don't really see a lot of 'bottom-up' movement on these issues in the global North. If we can improve a project 'on the ground' what are innovative ways of improving the public debate with the help of aid data? I guess this is true for many areas of public policy and development may be one to try out new innovative approaches?!

  4. Tobias

    That's not the case at all. The donors who have just agreed the International Aid Transparency Initiative have just agreed a mechanism to publish detailed raw information (in XML format) through the IATI registry.

    This will only turn into useable data when the bottom up movement you describe begins to use it: to filter it, present it, translate it, mash it up with other data and otherwise use it in their context.

    Indeed, some of the donors are concerned precisely that it may rely too much on a bottom-up movement, when the temptation is that they should find ways themselves to present the information to users.

    The aidinfo team at DI is focusing now on helping organistions and governments in developing countries to use this new rich source of information as it becomes available.

    So you are right that this has to be a bottom up movement if it is to succeed, but I think you are wrong to think that it is currently anything else. Donors will be making their data available - as only they can - in a way that facilitates and contributes to the bottom up movement.



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