Governments as Open Data Users: The Future of IATI

On March 19-20, the IATI Secretariat convened a Regional Workshop on Development Data and Usage. This event included 14 country governments from across Africa, as well as a handful of Ghanaian and international civil society organizations and service providers. The purpose of this workshop was to better understand i) how countries are (or are not) using IATI data in their existing aid management processes, ii) what barriers exist to increased IATI usage, and iii) what lessons can be shared and applied moving forward.

This event is timely for DG in light of our ongoing work with the Governments of Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, DRC, Madagascar, and Senegal to sustainably use IATI data in their Aid Management Platforms (AMPs). DG took the opportunity to share some of the lessons learned thus far from this effort. But most conference sessions were led by government delegations, facilitating a lively exchange of ideas and experience between countries with limited interjections from non-government groups like DG or the IATI Secretariat.

Drawing from this really valuable exchange, we’d like to note a few of the most important take-aways, as well as some thoughts on where the IATI community should go from here: 

IATI can contribute to country planning by bringing in data from non-traditional funders. Several countries began their presentations by asking how IATI could help them keep up with the exponential growth of development actors. For example, the Gates Foundation, which is a key candidate for IATI import in each of DG’s five IATI integration partners, was of particular interest to attendees, due to the Foundation’s combination of large country portfolios and very limited government engagement. Similarly, significant interest was expressed in obtaining both GAVI and the Global Fund data. One critical blind spot in existing IATI data is information on investments from China or other emerging partners. Many governments capture some data on China in their AMPs, but the lack of Chinese aid data is still a significant challenge for the global aid management community.

Open Data CAN save time and money. The Madagascar Delegation shared that in the past, the government would routinely pay $40,000 for ad hoc studies by consultants to determine how much aid, for what, and by whom was coming to the country. After procuring its Aid Management Platform (AMP) through DG and systematically collecting funding data from its Development Partners (DPs), government desk officers can now generate these reports in minutes. This anecdote illustrates the tangible, quantifiable impact that IATI can have as more countries use IATI data systematically – and as more donors report to IATI. In the same way that AMP has decreased data collection and analysis costs for 25+ countries in tracking traditional donors, IATI can decrease the costs of securing information from INGOs, foundations, and other development actors who fail to report to country systems.

IATI data need to improve, and there is reason to think they will. Issues like forward-looking budget data, national planning objectives, data completeness, on/off budget status, and more were all discussed by country delegations. In particular, the experience of Rwanda dramatically underscored the need for better data quality: when attempting an initial ambitious import of many IATI activity fields, only a small percentage were successfully matched on first attempt to a project recorded in the country system. Given that this Rwanda IATI pilot was a well-resourced collaborative effort between an AIMS technical provider, a high-capacity aid coordination unit, and embedded UNDP experts, but still faced significant roadblocks, it is unreasonable to expect that other countries will independently and easily pick up and use IATI data without significant donor improvements to data completeness, quality, and harmonized categorization. Our prior experiences in DRC were quite similar. The Secretariat is aggressively promoting better data quality, and the 2.01 standard begins to enforce stricter publishing requirements, but this is just a start. In particular, we would like to see more required transaction fields, clear indication of on/off budget status, and strict requirements for publishing IATI data in the official language of the recipient country.

When partner countries drive the discussion, IATI is more likely to benefit and grow. This was the highlight for me. Having attended multiple TAG and Steering Committee Meetings, I’ve often been struck by the reality that partner country voices are comparably quiet in key methodological discussions. This venue gave an excellent opportunity for the Secretariat and partners like DG to learn from partner country experiences, better understand their needs and motivations, and identify reasonable steps forward to make the standard drive country ownership and practical use. The Secretariat should be congratulated for creating a format with limited distractions and for ensuring that partner country participants were prominently featured in each session.

There is a gap between how publishers and partner countries view IATI – but it can be bridged. Publishers view IATI first as a Transparency for Development initiative. This means a focus on Open Data, stimulating demand, training and outreach, journalism, and infomediaries. Partner country governments, however, view IATI as a potential, practical tool for their Public Financial Management toolbox, focusing especially on system integration, data quality, standards, policies, and country-owned processes. Currently, IATI is serving the former purpose well, and has significant room for improvement on the latter. We believe that IATI can serve both purposes effectively, IF the community shifts toward a focus on publishing timely (at least quarterly) data, with particular emphasis on the quality of the core fields which countries need most.

We hope this marks the start of a move toward ensuring that global open development data are responsive to local context and use, and that IATI can help Partner Countries drive down costs, while improving data and decisions.