Earlier this week, I attended a two-day meeting of the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s Technical Advisory Group, which for obvious reasons is frequently shortened to the IATI TAG. If you’re unfamiliar with IATI, it’s a globally agreed initiative that helps organisations involved in the funding, execution or oversight of international development projects to publish data on those projects in a standardised way aimed at providing greater coordination, transparency and accountability of international aid efforts. To date, most effort has been spent on encouraging government ministries and bilateral and multilateral agencies to publish their data, although the standard is equally applicable to charitable trusts, NGOs and CSOs. This meeting was an opportunity for those who are currently publishing their data to share their challenges and successes with those who are considering implementing IATI for their own organisations or who are keen to use the data that is being published. Those present were drawn from a wide range of different organisations, such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), The Global Fund, Oxfam, the Foundation Center and the Planning Ministry of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Over the course of the two days there were more than twenty different sessions focused on areas such as implementing IATI, improving compliance with the IATI Standard (the set of rules that sets out how aid data should be published) and the current tools available for inputting and using data that is being published. There was also a Civil Society Organisation Working Group (which for the sake of brevity should probably be abbreviated to IATI TAG CSO WG) that looked at the unique challenges faced by CSOs wanting to implement IATI.
One of the biggest challenges facing CSOs is the technical question of how to publish their data. Having published all of our international grant data to IATI I am all too well aware of the problems this can throw up. Luckily, however, there are a number of tools that help organisations publish their data in the standardised format required by the IATI standard. The simplest are the two web entry platforms, OpenAidRegister and AidStream. These sites offer small organisations a very straightforward way of inputting their data on to a simple web page, which at the click of a button converts the data into an XML file ready for publication.
For organisations with more projects and larger budgets, more automated tools are necessary to avoid having to enter project information twice (once on to an internal system and once again for publication). Mark Brough’s CSV conversion tool, for example, allows organisations to convert data from an Excel spreadsheet into an IATI-compliant XML file with a minimum of effort. Similarly, Development Gateway have designed a tool that can extract data from an organisation’s internal database and convert it into an XML file. While many of these tools are at early stages, they do offer organisations a convenient and relatively simple way of publishing to IATI and it’s to be hoped that they will become increasingly popular over the next twelve months.
As well as data entry, the question of what to publish and how to improve the quality of that data is a central concern for the team behind IATI. There are both technical and ethical questions that need to be resolved. On the ethical front, there are a number of issues that need to be considered by any publisher such as data ownership and the publication of sensitive information, while technical challenges include questions such as the best way to measure compliance with IATI’s requirements and how to automate the process of data validation and compliance testing. On this latter issue, there was an animated debate on the value of creating a star-rating system for data publishers to assess the quality of the data they provide. Establishing such a system would be a difficult task, as it would require a degree of consensus as to which elements of the IATI standard are most important and whether compliance should be measured according to how much information is published overall, whether that data is rich and meaningful or whether organisations should be rated according to how much of what they say they will publish is actually published. As someone with limited technical expertise, I find it difficult to judge the quality of the data we have published and so think that a star-rating system or other data quality feedback loop is a pretty good idea. Knowing how we can improve the quality of our data and the concrete steps we can take would actually be very useful. Having said this, any system would likely have to be done on a voluntary basis (to avoid discouraging organisations from publishing data) and would need to provide tailored information on how to improve data quality.
During its relatively short life to date, IATI has achieved an awful lot. IATI signatories now account for 75% of the world’s official development assistance flows (ODA), several organisations and individuals have created tools that allow organisations to input and use IATI data and it has put the issues of transparency, accountability and aid effectiveness at the heart of the debate about international development. Still, there are a number of challenges remaining. The fact is that only 27 organisations in the world currently publish their data to IATI, with civil society groups being woefully under-represented. If we truly want to be able to trace aid flows from donor to final recipient, then we need many more organisations to sign up and start publishing. Fortunately, the team at IATI HQ are aware that there is a long way to go and that outreach and awareness raising remain key issues. There is also a need for NGOs to embrace transparency as a key principle and enabler of aid effectiveness. Without this commitment, IATI may remain the preserve of donor country governments, rather than becoming an all-encompassing gold standard for aid transparency. I’m hopeful that by the time the next IATI TAG comes around, there will be many more organisations committed to transparency and publishing their own data.