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Knowing how governments spend their assistance dollars, euros, and yen is a key contribution to broader aid effectiveness. But, it only paints part of the picture. There’s a complex (and very large) world of private and NGO implementers that actually deliver those monies on the ground whose information should be actively tracked and accounted for. For partner governments, information on aid project execution is just as valuable (if not more) than knowing where funds are being allocated. If one of the primary goals of aid transparency is to empower recipients to demand accountability and effectiveness, then implementing partners must be part of the picture.

Here’s the good news. International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are beginning to publicly publish their data in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard. To date, INGOs account for over two-thirds of development organizations that have started to publish to the IATI Registry (125 out of 187).

So that’s what things look like globally, but what about US-based INGOs? It turns out that only six of the 125 INGOs with data published to the IATI registry are US-based organizations. The vast majority are actually UK-based. What accounts for this UK-ization of IATI? Are British organizations simply more transparent and willing to open their books? Perhaps. But, it’s more likely that DFID has something to do with UK-based contractors’ and grantees’ responsiveness to consistent calls for greater operational transparency.

The UK has long led the pack in aid transparency amongst donors and it’s pulling many of its prime and sub-contractors along. Most of the related datasets posted to the IATI Registry cover DfID funding. So, what has DfID done to promote these best practices by its implementing partners? Here are a few of the steps that come to mind:

  • In March 2011, DFID announced that all NGOs receiving DFID funding through its major grant schemes would be required to be IATI-compliant. DfID is gradually expanding this requirement to all grantees (NGO and private sector organizations). All prime contractors will need to require this of their sub-contractors and sub-agencies as well. This includes publishing unique identifiers – making it possible to follow the money through the entire assistance delivery chain.
  • In June 2012, DfID published an Open Data Strategy where it committed to supporting aid data traceability by redeveloping its aid information platform to incorporate data from DfID partners. 
  • DfID also helps co-finance a support program led by Bond UK, the UK’s membership body for INGOs. These funds are used to cover the initial costs associated with adapting management and reporting systems to produce IATI data.

Not only are UK-based INGOs publishing, but their data is actually being utilized. DfID’s Development Tracker tool will be able to piece the delivery chain together by combining the different program components reported by DfID and by organizations in the implementing process. That’ll help government officials, media, civil society organizations, development agencies, and policy researchers actually use the data to track aid more effectively (see here for a real world example).

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the US NGO community seems to be dragging its feet. Some see costs as their main impediment. Others are concerned that publishing could put their staff and activities at risk. But there is good reason to consider these apprehensions overblown. IATI is clear about allowing agencies to withhold security-sensitive information and costs may vary depending on the organizational size and capacity. There is no hard and fast rule against donors (or implementers) publishing at their own pace in order to stretch any related reporting costs out over time. Furthermore, there are good reasons for INGOs to recognize that IATI reporting is in their own self-interest (e.g., reporting can help improve management systems within organizations). In fact, some of the biggest advocates of IATI are INGOs themselves, (such as Plan International USA, Pact, and Oxfam GB).

So far, USAID has not required that its grantees and implementing organizations report to IATI. In fact, USAID hasn’t publicly said much of anything to its partners about IATI and many think they’re not going to press the matter. USAID may be backing away from the issue because they don’t want to pick another fight with recalcitrant contractors after the USAID Forward procurement reform fiasco. After such a bruising fight, I can understand that instinct.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine US-based implementers picking up the reporting slack anytime soon without some prodding by their USAID benefactors. That may happen naturally with time as pressure builds for more transparency from public and private aid organizations. Nonetheless, if USAID and the Obama Administration are truly serious about aid transparency, then they should speed up the process and start engaging their contractors now about publishing to IATI. The UK has shown that it is possible and technically feasible to insist on traceability. So we’re left with the following question – what’s holding the US government back from following suit?

Thanks to Owen Barder and Joni Hillman for their contributions to this blog.