Politics of Poverty

Can you track the Ebola funding from pledge to delivery?

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Community volunteer, Theresa (right), leads a group workshop with women in her community in Sierra Leone. Through the workshop women learn about disease and sanitation, how to care for their children when they're sick and what measures to take to prevent the spread of diseases like Ebola. (Photo: Tommy Trenchard / Oxfam)

For aid transparency information to be useful, we need not just information on funding, but also needs to include information about where the funds are used and what they intend to deliver.

About three years ago I started tracking donor pledges for the Ebola crisis. In the process I learned that even though many donors are committed to aid transparency, finding answers to basic questions like how much money was promised and how much has been spent is a stress-inducing task. To add to the challenge, none of the current humanitarian aid tracking systems are detailed enough to follow the money to the ground, meaning there is no way to know, using the publicly available aid information, whether funds were used for their intended purpose.  And what’s more, we in the data transparency community don’t fully know whether the aid data that we’re working to make available is the RIGHT data. What information do people in developing countries actually need?

Instead of walking away frustrated and defeated, I decided to get answers. So I went to Liberia and Sierra Leone to gain insight about what information people working in the media, for accountability organizations, and in government want to have access to.

In total, I interviewed 27 people in Sierra Leone and Liberia to try to understand what information they need to improve accountability and coordination for aid funds. I was also interested in understanding why, from their perspective, transparency is important, whether the need for transparency changes in humanitarian emergencies, and what their other challenges are. I detail my findings along these lines in a paper released this week.

Overall, those I interviewed highlighted that having access to information on aid funding and its uses is not only important for transparency, coordination, and accountability’s sake, but also because it helps build trust.  Trust is especially relevant in the context of the West Africa Ebola outbreak since many people didn’t believe that Ebola was real. One stakeholder in Liberia spoke to this specifically:

“Because of lack of trust in government a lot of negative things happen in the country. Like when the Ebola process started, and the government said Ebola was in Liberia and people are dying. People [then] said government was just looking for a way to get money from the international community. They never trusted the government, so many people died because we all were confused just because of the lack of trust in government.”

In addition to building trust, people want information so they can monitor and coordinate projects. To do that however, they need to know more than simply how much money was given and which organizations or institutions it flowed through. To actually use open aid data, stakeholders need to know what the money was actually used for: what services were provided? Where in the country was work done or support given? Interviewees put it this way:

“There has been quite a lot of suspicion that this government will always allocate more resources to its northern base population, so once we get that [sub-national information] we can say, ‘Hey guys, that is not true, or yes, it is true,’ and this government is depriving certain regions of the country. These are things that are very essential.”

“We never hear in the final analysis how that $240 million was translated into tangible outcomes. That aspect is totally missing. We also would like to hear outcome information, to be able to say that $240 million was allocated in 2012, for example, and the project was four years long and in 2016 this is what we have.”

Like me, they’re frustrated – and for good reason. The information needed to hold donors and other development actors accountable is simply not available.

Even now, after the designated Ebola recovery periods have ended, and in theory, the billions of dollars pledged for the crisis should be spent, there’s no way of knowing what was accomplished even at a high-level.  In fact, some of the problems I first encountered have gotten worse because all of the Ebola reports stopped being updated and published as time passed and public interest waned.   This is extremely unfortunate; especially since the top five donors alone – the US , World Bank, UK, European Commission , and African Development Bank – promised over $7 billion to the Ebola response and recovery; just slightly less than the amount requested in the three nations’ recovery plans and the entire United Nations emergency response appeal.  There should have been enough money to address the needs of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea both during and post-crisis. And maybe the funds did what they were intended to do or maybe they did not; the problem is that we may never know for sure since billions of dollars remain in open data limbo.

To be fair, the Ebola pledges are complicated because they include a mix of humanitarian and development funding, and there is no data tool that brings these two streams together well. The UN Financial Tracking Service only tracks humanitarian funds, and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) doesn’t track pledges or allow you to filter for a specific funding appeal, so there is no easy way to follow pledges through the system. Using the development portal, a tool that uses IATI data, you can search for Ebola and get more information, but it is billions short of the total amounts pledged.

While improvements are continuously being made to aid transparency, and those changes and commitments should be commended, there is a still a lot of work to be done.  If we want to stop talking about whether donated funds did what they promised in emergencies, like in Haiti and for Ebola, we need to collect, publish, and distribute data that is useful for people in donor capitals and developing countries alike so we can learn, adjust, and hold donors and governments accountable.

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