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This is a joint post with Lawrence MacDonald.

Struggling to provide relief and reconstruction assistance in the wake of super typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda), the Philippines has launched a foreign aid information hub and gently encouraged donors to follow through on their own transparency pledges, with a top official reported in the Philippine press as saying that the two efforts "should go hand in hand."

“There’s an urgent call now for us to monitor the movement of foreign aid funds for Yolanda so they will go exactly where they’re supposed to: to the survivors of the typhoon for whom recovery will be a long and arduous process, and to the communities that need to be rehabilitated as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Richard Moya, undersecretary of the Department of Budget and Management said in a statement.

The Philippine government's new Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, FAiTH, launched just 10 days after the storm, promises to provide information on all foreign assistance channeled through the Philippine government, starting with the typhoon and later expanding to include aid the victims of other calamities.

Moya made it clear, however, that the Philippines could not share information it does not have.

“Counter to what most people think, foreign aid isn’t given to the Philippine government in hard cash. Instead, these arrive in the form of pledges, which are released to aid groups or their corresponding organizations in the Philippines, such as USAID and Red Cross. In cases like this, FAiTH doesn’t monitor these funds ... it tracks foreign aid that is coursed through Philippine government agencies,” Moya said.

Budget secretary Florencio Abad was reported to have told the press that administration efforts to bolster foreign aid transparency "should go hand-in-hand" with civil society and donor initiatives to improve accountability in the management of disaster funding in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

“We believe that other humanitarian organizations and civil society groups want the very same things that this Administration is working for: greater transparency and accountability in the use of funds, especially those that are meant to bring relief and urgent assistance to the victims of calamities," Abad said.

"Working together, the Philippine government and the global community can accomplish much toward rebuilding the communities damaged by Yolanda and restoring normalcy to the lives of those who were affected by the typhoon,” he added.

In the United States, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which is part of USAID, is posting fact sheets that report pledges and other information regarding US assistance to the Philippines. According to today’s fact sheet, the US has pledged $37 million thus far.  Also, USAID/OFDA “delivered more than 23,000 water containers to the Philippines, which will benefit approximately 11,700 households, or 58,500 people, in affected areas.”

These are welcome steps in the right direction. Both governments are to be commended for their efforts, especially at a time when officials are working round-the clock to get food, water and medical supplies to the victims of the typhoon.

Even at this very early stage, however, we can see the potential value of using new online transparency tools and techniques to provide detailed, up-to-date information about what assistance is being provided when and where. For example, the New York Times reports that while the coastal city of Tacloban is receiving help, people living in inland areas have been waiting a week for relief supplies.

If all governments and international NGOs report their activities promptly to the UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) and to FAiTH in real time, this will help to address this problem of uneven distribution and may even help to save lives. 

And while UN FTS and FAiTH should be the first stop for reporting relief assistance, Philippine budget secretary Abad is right to encourage the donor community to strengthen reporting through IATI, which is the more robust system and will become increasingly important as the aid focus shifts one from relief to reconstruction.  NGOs also have a moral obligation to comply with the request from the Government of the Philippines to be transparent about aid, and there is a corresponding obligation of USAID and other official donors to see to it that their contractors and grantees be transparent as well.

The US and Philippine government moves come amid growing expectations and demands for relief and aid transparency. Soon after the typhoon a CGD blog post by Vijaya Ramachandran and Owen Barder urging increased donor transparency in the Philippines unexpectedly went viral, generating over 7 thousand "likes" on Facebook and sparking a lively discussion among people in the Philippines itself and in the far-flung Philippine diaspora.

The post, titled "Let's Not Help the Philippines Like We Helped Haiti," pointed out that after nearly four years and billions of dollars to help Haiti recover from a devastating earthquake, there is little to show for it on the ground and almost no information on how the money was spent.

On Sunday the Washington Post ran a commentary that expanded on the original blog post and called for USAID to avoid the mistakes made in Haiti by requiring primary recipients of USAID contracts to promptly disclose detailed information on their subcontractors' activities:

The United States ... should be a leader in this effort. The U.S. Agency for International Development is already required to report publicly on the activities of its primary contractors. But the actual work is usually done by subcontractors, and USAID does not collect or publish information about what they do.

This is not hard to fix: USAID Administrator Raj Shah should announce that, starting with the Philippine relief and reconstruction effort, the agency will require all primary contractors to publicly disclose project-level data on their subcontractors’ activities in a timely fashion. This would not only help avoid overlaps and gaps in aid in the short term but would also make it possible to learn lessons about what worked — so we can do better in future disasters. American taxpayers should settle for nothing less.

Shah will be giving a major speech at the Brookings Institution on Thursday. We and others will be listening with interest to hear what he has to say about efforts underway in USAID to strengthen transparency, including by posting timely, detailed, machine readable data to shared international portals like FTS and IATI.