In the past 50 years there have been great successes in aid-funded programs. For instance, the number of children who die every year has decreased from 20 million to fewer than 8 million. Additionally, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half. These significant successes can be attributed to the generosity that goes into humanitarian relief efforts.

In spite of the irrefutable evidence that aid is effective, opposition in many rich countries to foreign aid persists. Several organizations have therefore developed measures to increase transparency on how aid funds are invested.

Watchdog organizations include:

Publish What You Fund The global campaign for aid transparency.

Primarily an advocacy organization working with organizations from around the world, calling on donors to publish what they fund.

Transparency International The global coalition against corruption.

Working in nearly 100 countries to raise awareness of corruption, and involves governments, businesses and international organizations to develop effective programs to tackle it. This organization also publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index that measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 176 countries and territories around the world.

International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Makes information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.

Provides data on a registry in XML format that can be converted into databases, spreadsheets, web applications, printed documents or data visualizations.

OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Better policies for better lives.

Collates and publishes data on aid flows from their 24 member countries and a number of international aid organizations.

AidData Open data for international development.

Augments data collected by the OECD DAC to create a more comprehensive and accessible database on aid projects.

Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI)

A professional network of senior budget officials in African Ministries of Finance and/or Planning. CABRI’s main objective is to promote efficient and effective management of public finances, which fosters economic growth and enhances service delivery for the improvement of the living standards of African people.

International Budget Partnership (IBP) Open budgets. Transform lives.

Collaborates with civil society around the world to analyze and influence public budgets in order to reduce poverty and improve the quality of governance.

Aid Watch Just asking that aid benefit the poor

The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University’s Development Research Institute (DRI). Their work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

OpenAid Public online monitoring for better development aid.

A project of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany for transparency in development cooperation. OpenAid promotes the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and implements data analysis projects.

Access-Info Europe

Works to advance and defend the right to know in Europe and globally. They stand against excessive secrecy and believe that access to information is key to protecting human rights.

Debt Relief International and Development Finance International (DFI)

A non-profit capacity-building, advocacy, advisory and research group which works with more than 50 governments and international organizations worldwide.

Transparency and Accountability Initiative Empowering citizens to hold their governing institutions to account.

Brings together a wide range of organizations and projects aimed at promoting greater openness on the part of governments, companies and other institutions so that the public can hold them accountable.

These organizations collectively ensure aid funds are invested appropriately. With this level of accountability, contributors can be confident the world’s poor are receiving their assistance.

– Caressa Kruth

Sources: NY Times, Publish What you Fund, Transparency International, AidInfo, International Aid Transparency Initiative, AidData, OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative, International Budget Partnership, Aid Watch, OpenAid, Access-Info Europe, DFI, Transparency and Accountability Initiative
Photo: Make Aid Transparent Vimeo

It is easy to get excited about all the new information we now have about the world’s development projects. Maps and tables, charts and graphs flood our inboxes with ‘big data.’ Most recently, AidData published a huge dataset on Tracking Chinese Aid to Africa. All the hype has caused some backlash, and rightfully so. Big data is still data and requires the same careful handling as any other dataset. This is not meant to dull enthusiasm or lessen the use of data. This is a precaution against the misuse and overgeneralization of big data. One size does not fit all, and overgeneralizations from large or small datasets can be dangerous. Here are Big Data’s 4 downsides found by practitioners and academics.

1) Big data is not a panacea. One size does not fit all. The dynamic nature of development projects means that many are time-place specific. While sweeping data collection projects can lead to better practices at high-level institutions, implementing policies based on improperly generalized data is bad policy and poor use of data.

2) Difficulties in filtering relevant information. Data from developing countries regarding health systems, political upheaval, natural disasters, etc. are most often reported by vulnerable people experiencing the event first hand. The sourcing of the data is often social media. Aside from possible problems with the validity of the data, the sheer amount of potential data is enormous. Key word searches across selected media yield thousands of data points which have to be carefully reviewed to filter for relevancy. The computer programs are simply not nuanced enough to pull out the differences between hate speech, for example, and slang (as shown in a study on mapping hate speech in twitter recently). Additionally, a parallel problem is availability of reliable and secure statistical processing. Unlike data processing for pharmaceutical companies, aid data processing is not backed by billions of dollars in profit.

3) Data exhaustion on the ground. By the time social scientists are through cleaning, manipulating, and making sense of the data, the situation on the ground has often changed. This is called “data exhaustion.” The big data collectors (UN, World Bank, USAID, AidData) are constantly playing catch up. This means that the people on the ground are not able to use the most up-to-date information. The use of social media has mitigated the delay; however, data extraction and implementation of policies based on data is a top-down approach that may not accord with the culture of the project or practical feasibility. For example, the best way to empower women according to big data analyses might be to get women into the work place allowing them independent incomes. The on-the-ground reality might be that they are already responsible for non-paid work, such as childcare or maintaining subsistence crops, which already takes up their whole day.

4) Validity of data is questionable. As indicated by the debates over the validity of AidData’s Tracking Chinese Aid to Africa, socially sourced data cannot be the only source of data to influence policy. Self-reporting has inherent “barriers, blindspots and biases.” For example, the information collected from the Arab Spring was based on self-reporting of goings-on. The outside world used information from texts, Tweets, Facebook and blog posts to analyze the situation.

These four potential downsides of  big data all suggest the need for caution in using data to inform development policy.

– Katherine Zobre

Source: Relief Web

AidData and China's Foreign Aid Policy
In the past decade, China has committed at least $75 billion to aid and development in Africa. Since 2000, there has been up to 1,700 projects, and China’s commitment to development in Africa stands as one of the strongest of any donor country. Research in the U.S. has created a large public database of these projects, named AidData, in order to analyze China’s efforts.

While this ongoing data collection could create debate over China’s interests in Africa, it is clear that Chinese engagement in the continent strengthened infrastructure, energy generation, and supply and communications. The ability to measure this aid will allow for transparency in China’s aid processes and strategies. Chinese aid is performed through direct investment “without state involvement and NGO aid” so that there is no middleman and the money can go directly where it is needed. However, this makes it more difficult to track where the money goes, and how it is used.

Ghana, Nigeria, and Sudan are the biggest aid recipients, receiving a quarter of a trillion dollars over the past 10 years. As was earlier mentioned, the biggest priority for Chinese aid is infrastructure. This means that empowering women, providing food aid, and creating education systems rank much lower on the priority list. AidData has suggested that because these are areas that the West tends to focus on the most, China has taken a different route.

In spite of this reasoning, according to AidData, China has backed hundreds of health, transport, and agricultural projects. Doctors and teachers have been sent into Africa as well, while African students have been encouraged to study in China. Some insist that China is only interested in the continent for its natural resources, yet it is clear that China is interested in supporting Africa for the future.

– Sarah Rybak

Sources: The Guardian, ONE
Photo: China Daily