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Neil Cole says donors need to return to this question.
“A lot of open aid data is being presented as donors putting a tool in place. This is fine and good, but it’s not enough,” says Neil Cole of the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI).
“We have to think more carefully about the purpose of the tools, most importantly how they relate to countries’ budget processes. How does aid data support governmental planning?”
Cole voiced the concern that many aid transparency discussions were missing this key point when he visited Washington, DC last month to talk about how local actors can and are using aid data to strengthen country systems.
“More important than donors presenting an impressive tool to share aid data, governments need the information to govern and to manage funds better,” explained Cole. He shared that the percentage of public revenue of African countries from foreign aid is between 14% and 48%. That is why he says the members of CABRI, senior budget officials across African Ministries of Finance, need aid data that can serve their needs and the parliamentary and citizen oversight function.
“Imagine if you are Rwanda. You can’t leave out 48% of your budget while planning. Government officials are moving towards medium-term projects and program-based budgets, but they can’t negotiate with donors if aid data is not accessible, timely, and comparable.”
Cole offered the examples of Ghana and Malawi, where aid information management systems within the Ministry of Finance are enabling officials to engage coherently with donors.
Cole knows something about country systems and public financial management in Africa. In addition to his role as Executive Secretary of CABRI, he is also a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program. As a former Chief Director within the South African National Treasury responsible for budget reforms and expenditure planning, he helped South Africa alter the way it budgets for public services and how it accounts for public expenditure.
Cole shared that in his home country, they still had to leave 1% of aid out of South Africa’s budget preparations because data from donors was not credible enough.
Oxfam America hosted Cole and three other African government and civil society leaders who spoke in congressional and USAID offices, addressing the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, pending legislation intended to support greater US aid transparency.
“Now that commitments are there, we need to understand what are the other things that need to be in place to get a return on investment. To do this, donors have to give more thought about who is in the room.”
Looking ahead, Cole is optimistic about the state of budgeting systems in African countries. Even though the 2012 International Budget Partnership saw the placing of African countries all over the Open Budgets Index, CABRI is using their annual seminar and peer reviews to help identify change opportunities. This year, members from Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and Mali traveled to the DRC, and members from Liberia, Lesotho, and South Africa traveled to Kenya to help probe the challenges and identify the opportunities to improve budget transparency and greater public participation.
“What we’re seeing is more program-based budgeting, performance incentives and accountability within civil service, and more realistic policy debates,” said Cole. “Our members are working towards quality public services consistent with citizen preferences.”
“Progress will be seen in the implementation, but so far progress on transparency has been due to civil society pressure and governments’ efforts to take budgets to the citizens,” Cole says. “It often takes only one instance of a rule being enforced for budgetary actors to change their behavior.”
Cole, who contributed to drafting the Accra Action Agenda and the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, urged stakeholders in Washington DC to not see transparency as an end goal.
“If you’re waving placards only about transparency, you’re not getting it,” he said. “The clashing of heads should be about what will bring about sustainable development and make countries less aid dependent.”
“That’s why open aid data needs a purpose, a process, capacity and it requires a strong investment in public financial management. Without those other things, aid data can’t find fertile ground.”