Monday, July 19, 2010

If We Show Them, Will They Care?

Participants in this month’s International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) meeting in Paris agreed to provide more responsive, detailed and transparent information about aid programs.  Will it make a difference?

As Owen Barder, who attended the meeting, acknowledges, changing organizational infrastructure and culture will not be easy. However, transparency is important for development projects because their effectiveness *might* improve if each aid agency knows what the others are doing, recipient governments can see the whole picture, and public watchdogs can hold them all accountable.  

Why do I say *might*?

We are increasingly awash in information.  Information availability used to be the binding constraint. But now we are on the brink of information overload, and the constraint is increasingly usability and incentives rather than availability.

Over the fifteen years I spent in the official aid sector (primarily at the World Bank, but also at USAID and the Asian Development Bank), I worked on millions of dollars of initiatives designed to increase the availability of information about aid projects.  In Indonesia, we did a giant database of all the coconut, rubber, and palm oil projects being funded by the various aid agencies.  In Russia, the G-7 was so concerned about poor aid coordination and duplication that they ordered the Bank to create a database of everything that was happening.

What was the net result of these initiatives?  Nada.  No change in behavior.  In each case, we made a Herculean effort to get the data into the database and distributed, but to my knowledge no agency changed what it did or how it did it.  And in both cases, the database efforts collapsed after about six months - both from lack of use as well as lack of incentive for anyone to provide the data.  

While I don’t have hard and fast data, I would guess that about 80-90% of information initiatives fail to achieve their intended effects -i.e., fail to change behavior so that some underlying phenomenon is improved.  For these initiatives to work, they require a combination of factors - the right information, gathered from the right sources, displayed through the right user interface, to the right people, at the right time.  Will the participants at the IATA meeting get all these right?  Are the right incentives in place?  Stay tuned...
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