Ideas to Action:

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Next month, Publish What You Fund (PWYF) will release its latest Aid Transparency Index, which assesses how well 67 development organizations open their books to scrutiny from their taxpayers and recipient country governments and citizens. USAID ranked 27th last year, a pretty disappointing result for the lead US development agency. The State Department and Defense Department fared even worse (46th and 56th place out of 72). The MCC was the lone US bright spot, coming in at 9th place. 

Why does all of this matter? Because timely reporting of aid projects – coupled with greater budget transparency in developing countries – could lead to dramatic improvements in targeting people’s most pressing problems and perhaps even development outcomes over time.

Take Kenya’s North Eastern province as an illustration, where three-quarters of the population live in poverty. According to Afrobarometer public attitude surveys, over 20 percent of people living there have cited the lack of physical infrastructure as the “most pressing national problem” – roughly twice the response rates across the nation. That’s not terribly surprising given the remoteness of this province. So, the next logical question is how well are the Kenyan government and its donor partners targeting their spending to address this problem? 

Through the World Bank’s BOOST platform, the Kenyan government reports public spending by sector and sub-national unit. With a few mouse clicks (it took me 10 minutes to access the data and build the graph below), we find that expenditures on physical infrastructure in North Eastern province increased from KSh5.9 million in 2003 to KSh17.3 million in 2010 – with some spikes in between. Granted, these are paltry sums in per capita terms. But, at least local citizens can track how much is being spent (assuming they have Internet access and know about this site) and decide whether they want to clamor for more.

Now let’s turn to the donor financing landscape. Is USAID investing in physical infrastructure in North Eastern province? Well…I have absolutely no idea. The Foreign Assistance Dashboard doesn’t report data at the sub-national level. USAID’s Joint Assistance Strategy doesn’t mention anything either. But, then again, the document only references North Eastern province four times. The USAID Kenya website includes a list of projects that presumably are active in North Eastern province. But, I’d have to search through every single link to determine whether they include a physical infrastructure component and then cross my fingers that the document includes spending levels. By this point, I’ve simply become too frustrated to bother.

Herein lies the problem with the USG’s aid transparency efforts. It more often resembles a document and data dumping ground instead of a user-friendly interface for government officials, media and interested citizens in developing countries, other development agencies (like the World Bank), the US Congress, and policy researchers like me. That’s one reason why I fear another disappointing Aid Transparency Index ranking for USAID this year.

Now back to my example. USAID might not be investing in physical infrastructure in North Eastern province. That might be perfectly fine. Perhaps it’s focusing on income-generating activities – which have been another persistent concern. But, the fact that people can’t find out – even when actively searching – is a real problem. A problem that could be fixed if USAID reported to the full IATI standard – including activity budgets, accurate sector and project titles, and linking the agency’s financial data to its actual projects. That’d be a game changer.

Despite some challenges, other donors like the UK’s Department for International Development are doing this. It’s high time for USAID to accelerate its effort and truly join the user-driven information age as well.