The Politics of Poverty

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More US international aid data released—now what? A user’s perspective

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Oxfam sits down with a former Ghanaian government minister to see how useful the data is at the country level.

This post is the first in a series on user perspectives on US aid transparency data. Also see Albert Kan-Dapaah’s op-ed in The Hill blog, “Open the books on foreign aid.” 

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Three US government agencies released loads of data on their foreign aid programs last month. So what happens when a Parliamentarian or a Minister of a country receiving US development assistance wants to use that information?

Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah, co-founder and executive director of Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa and former Ghanaian Minister and Parliamentarian
Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah, co-founder and executive director of Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa and former Ghanaian Minister and Parliamentarian and chartered public accountant.

Yesterday I sat down with the Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah, a former government minister in Ghana, to find out. Kan-Dapaah is not only a former cabinet minister and chair of the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament of Ghana, he began his career as a chartered accountant. As he explored foreignassistance.gov, examining USAID’s projects in Ghana in 2013, he shared his observations and perspectives.

They probably don’t appreciate how important this is,” Kan-Dapaah commented as we began. “These new data that are coming out [from USAID, MCC, and the Treasury Department] is what we need to bring financial accountability to the government. Finding out that $10 million USD was allocated for a bridge over a certain river is a very powerful tool.

As someone who served as a member of Parliament in Ghana for 16 years, the first thing that Kan-Dapaah said would be helpful is information on the localities of the funded aid projects on the website. The listing of projects by sector and then by payment to implementing partners is a start, but he says, “I would want to know what aid money is flowing into my constituency, and I can imagine other members would too.”

Currently Kan-Dapaah would need to see the contracts and project plans that are not currently on the website to know what regions, districts, and/or communities are to be reached by the USAID in Ghana. Kan-Dapaah would also like to see direct outreach by the US government to Parliamentarians.

It’s important for legislators to be aware that this data is available and how it can be used,” he said. “This is part of their oversight role and is what’s needed to trigger checks and balances.”

Kan-Dapaah examines new aid data out on Ghana via foreignassistance.gov.
Kan-Dapaah examines new aid data out on Ghana via foreignassistance.gov.

Another missing but necessary level of detail was also evident as the chartered accountant wanted to know why the spent amount in the first three quarters, $93 million USD, was so different from the $72 million USD obligated during the period. The explanation was not readily apparent from the 172 financial transactions listed and the gaps in entries that appeared.

An audit is not yet possible with this,” Kan-Dapaah noted. “Without ‘lower level’ transactions, if we want to get to the level of performance audit, this cannot help us. Transparency without an accounting system means [data] cannot be put in context. What is also needed is percentage completion data.

Kan-Dapaah had shared earlier in the day that the USAID’s new focus on country systems are right on, but that supporting the civil society watchdog function alongside these efforts was key. As Kan-Dapaah scrolled through the listing, however, just a glance at the vendor names shows how little US assistance is going directly to the Ghanaian government and to Ghanaian civil society.

So many contractors and international NGOs,” he muttered. Abt Associates, the Academy of Educational Development, Research Triangle Institute, US universities—the list goes on and on save some small amounts for direct administrative costs of USAID mission business and the exception of a few education, social services, and infrastructure projects.

And who knows how these suppliers were selected?” Kan-Dapaah wondered.

Hearing from the users of data, the people who must plan within government and those who must hold governments to account, is key to understanding how far the US still has to go to share usable data on our aid programs.

A screen shot of some of the Ghana data on foreignassistance.gov.
A screen shot from foreignassistance.gov.

So what was Kan-Dapaah’s final thoughts on the available information on US development assistance to Ghana?

It’s pretty scanty. I’d like to see the US err on the side of giving more information, than less. We need this data for a better understanding of the aid flows into Ghana, so that we can use it to provide more scrutiny of our government,” he said.

Official development assistance received makes up 21.5 percent of Ghana’s central government expenditure (2011 World Bank figures). Kan-Dapaah recently co-founded a non-partisan think tank, called Financial Accountability & Transparency-Africa. The organization’s aim is to bring pressure to bear on the development of efficient and effective public sector financial management systems for all types of government revenue in Africa, including profits from oil and mining in Kan-Dapaah’s home country of Ghana.

At the end of the day, our democracy, which we fought hard for, will be in trouble unless the people believe that their government is taking care of the money,” said Kan-Dapaah.

The raw material that I need to do my work is the right information.”

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New bi-partisan legislation—the Foreign Aid Transparency Act of 2013—would open the books on US foreign aid. More transparency will enable people like Hon. Albert Kan-Dapaah to hold their governments accountable for how they invest US resources. Learn more and contact your representatives here.

And stay tuned to Politics of Poverty to get more user perspectives on aid transparency data!

Join the conversation

  1. consultant.luc@gmail.com'Luc Lapointe

    Jennifer!

    Very interesting story from an elected official’s perspective looking at published data from USAID (in this case). USAID is one of the 26 donors that form part of the DAC Members selected group. As the expression says…the devil is in the details.

    My question would be…how would anyone for that matter be able to go through 26 different websites …and also the World Bank data, and a multitude of other sites that are vertical programs (Global Health Fund, etc) …and have the “knowledge”to make sense of all this data in the context of increasing Private Development actors/stakeholders (Gates Foundation, Clinton Global Initiative), economic activities, and much more.

    PDA Definition — Private assistance is further limited to aid that is: (a) undertaken by private actors including individuals, foundations, corporations, private voluntary organizations, universities and colleges, or religious organizations; (b) with promotion of economic development and humanitarian need as the objective; and (c) at concessional financial terms where commodities and loans are concerned.

    How do you make sense of this data that are not granular enough to inform policy decision? How significant is this data in the context that ODA is becoming one of the most irrelevant sources of revenues for a LDC or MIC?

    If you look at the mapping of spending for Haiti (even though all the money is earmarked for Haiti)…I believe 60% (maybe more) was allocated to groups in the DC beltway. I have looked at some data from Canada and it doesn’t take long to see that many earmarked money for Bolivia…for example was mostly spent in Canada. People would argue that Bolivia gained something when volunteers came here!?/

    We are working on a project in Bolivia that looks at how a municipality could use technology to help understand ODA flows..or PDA flows in the context of local/national strategies and domestic resources mobilization. How can a municipal government map their needs and opportunities to attract new and innovative sources of financing that may have less political attachment?

    I think one interesting case is neighboring (the other coast) Tanzania who decided to change their visa structure…where a tourist pays $100 but a volunteers pays five times more. What data informed that decision?

    We hope to be able to showcase the result of our work in the context of the changing landscape of aid delivery where host countries will have to deal with hypercollective actions that includes the diaspora, travelers, corporations, and local resources. Mission possible!?

    Mapping the past is interesting…but mapping the future (needs and opportunities) should also be an area of focus!

    Luc Lapointe

    Reply
  2. scuster@aiddata.org'Samantha Custer

    Jennifer:

    Great post. You raise critical points regarding the need for aid information to not be merely transparent, but actually useful for development stakeholders to hold donors and local governments accountable for results.

    This provokes the question – what would make aid information easily intelligible and actionable for the local constituencies that Minister Kan-Dapaah referred to? People are most likely to use information that is relevant, timely and easy to understand with minimal effort.

    I would argue that there are three critical components of the solution: (1) publicly accessible, project-level documentation; (2) aid projects tagged with specific geographic information; and (3) dynamic maps that enable users to track where aid funds are going compared with socio-economic indicators.

    The international aid community has certainly made important steps forward in releasing greater quantities of information on development finance. They have a long way to go before they provide this information in a form that is meaningful for most local development stakeholders. It’s time to raise the bar.

    AidData’s partnership with the USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network is proof positive that the development community can provide the type of information that Minister Kan-Dapaah and other local development stakeholders are looking for. With financial support from USAID and AusAID, Nepal’s Ministry of Finance and AidData has pinpointed over 21,500 geographic locations of all donor funded aid projects in Nepal and has trained local government, civil society and university stakeholders to use this geocoded data to inform advocacy, research and decision-making on development priorities. This information is all publicly accessible via aiddata.org and the Nepal’s Aid Management Platform and anyone can use maps and dashboards to overlay geocoded project data with socio-economic indicators to visualize where aid funds are going at a subnational level compared to areas of greatest need.

    As AidData and its partners use geocoded data and dynamic maps to make aid information more accessible and actionable for all development stakeholders, I hope it sets a new standard for what we can expect from traditional and emerging donors. Information is power – but only if it is in a form we can understand and use.

    Samantha Custer
    AidData

    *The AidData Center for Development Policy is a partnership of the College of William & Mary, Development Gateway, Brigham Young University, University of Texas-Austin and Esri. Learn more at: aiddata.org

    Reply
  3. rps31313@yahoo.com'PUKAR WelFound, Murree East

    US Aid has been very popular in East. Working through NGOs in a good way to avoid misuse of grants. PWF also stepped in the field for women support through education health and skill building programs. Razya Public School is our first project in remote village Ba de har in Murree East just 65 km from capital city Islamabad. PWF will also seek grant from this aid program. Lets make a change in the face of diversity.

    Reply
  4. sdavis@improveinternational.org'Susan Davis

    Jennifer – great points. Big data = big dud if not useful for action. It’s a great start to show funds but I still (as a US taxpayer) am very interested in the RESULTS – not just what those funds paid for, but what’s changing now that those funds have been spent? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all see what’s working so that more money could be invested in those sorts of activities?
    Thanks for this perspective,
    Susan

    Reply
  5. Pingback: More US international aid data released—now what? A user’s perspective - Second Green Revolution

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