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Tracking Development via effective Aid Management

Publicly accessible geo-coded database of development projects helps underdeveloped countries to track where and how aid is flowing in, plan projects and monitor progress, thus improving the effectiveness of aid and donor coordination.

In one interactive interface, policymakers, practitioners and citizens can compare data on $40 trillion in remittances, foreign direct investment and aid from 90 donor agencies on aiddata.org. A state-of-the-art GIS interface allows users to upload their own data, as well as create, save and share maps.

“Technology doesn’t come after you deal with poverty, but is a tool you use to alleviate poverty.”
— James Wolfensohn, former World Bank President

Each year, billions of dollars are spent by an increasingly diverse set of countries, international institutions and private foundations with the goal of improving the lives and livelihoods of citizens in developing countries. Is development assistance capable of achieving these aspirations? The answer largely hinges upon tracking how decisions are made, with what information and who is involved in the process.

AidData, a research and innovation lab tracking over $40 trillion in development finance, is a partnership with the Development Gateway, an independent not-for-profit organisation, the College of William & Mary and Brigham Young University. The partnership was born out of the need to increase aid effectiveness by providing products and services promoting dissemination, analysis, and understanding of development finance information. “This innovative partnership came about [when we saw that] our three institutions were taking complementary approaches to the same problem. Big development challenges can’t be solved without a high degree of cooperation,” explains AidData Co-Executive Director Nancy McGuire Choi.

Spatial information is vitally important to the basic approach of AidData. As Choi explains, “Shedding light on the geographic dimension of aid can have a powerful and catalytic effect on the impact of development”. Since 2009, AidData has contributed to improving donor coordination and the effectiveness of aid through creating a publicly accessible geo-coded database of development activities with extensive project-level detail. In addition to providing this global public good, AidData designs customised data solutions for myriad government, bilateral and multilateral institutional clients.

AidData’s unique contribution is as an infomediary. “Governments and international organisations have a responsibility to their taxpayers, member states, and intended beneficiaries to disclose information about what they are doing and where they are doing it, but this information is often released in formats that are difficult to aggregate, visualise, and analyse. AidData fills this gap by serving as an infomediary between the suppliers of raw data and the end users who need to make sense of the data for research, advocacy, or decision-making purposes,” explains Brad Parks, AidData’s other Co-Executive Director

To date, AidData has geocoded development portfolios of the World Bank (143 countries) and the African Development Bank (53 countries), as well as partnering with the governments of Nepal, Malawi, Uganda, Senegal, Haiti, Timor- Leste to geocode all donors within their aid management platforms — an aid information management system supported by Development Gateway.

This geocoded investment data is the building block for creating maps and dashboards that anyone can use to easily visualise project activities and finance flows. While mapping sub-national financial flows is interesting, it is even more revealing to mash up different spatial layers to compare the distribution of aid in different sectors against relevant socio- economic indicators. “One of the benefits [of geocoding] is that it makes the distribution of aid visible by using maps and it can help decision-makers and other stakeholders to support areas where there is less official development assistance… all from the study of maps,” says an official from the Ministry of Finance in Tanzania, requesting anonymity

The need for granular aid information

Information on development inputs (who is spending what and where) and outputs (the results of those investments on the ground) should be a powerful asset in delivering better governance and more effective aid for developing countries. However, more often than not, donors and governments find themselves inundated with information buried in copious documents or frustrated by data silos between organisations or departments. For instance, in Honduras, the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation, had all information in a spreadsheet and as it kept introducing new fields, the data became too big to handle after a while. The Ministry of Finance in Malawi faced a similar problem — aid information was captured in excel and it was difficult to track where the money was going. The government was looking for an easy tool to track development finance and it approached AidData partner Development Gateway.

An important facet of AidData’s geocoding approach is that it is demand-driven. As Choi explains, “We don’t do one-off data collection exercises but work with governments based on long-standing partnerships with ministries of finance to embed geocoding into their processes”.

While AidData is willing to work in both middle- and low- income countries, thus far it has had the greatest traction in countries where aid is a large proportion of their GDP. As Brad Parks describes, “We have seen the highest levels of demand for high-resolution, geospatial aid data among countries that face major aid management challenges.” These are usually underdeveloped countries, and targeting, coordination or evaluation of this aid money is most difficult in some of these places. The opportunity to work with AidData and develop better systems to make sense of all this aid information, “creates a strong incentive for [countries to take the transparency pledge] and go public with their aid information management systems”, underscores Parks.

Building capacity

There are several components to be addressed in strengthening the supply of relevant, and thereby, useful aid information. Beyond aggregate financial information and country-level strategies, publicly accessible documentation on specific development activities at the project level is needed. Second, donors should report on the locations where development interventions are taking place and tag communities that should be benefiting. Dynamic mapping enables users to track where aid funds are going compared with local political and socio-economic indicators such as corruption, literacy and poverty rates. Finally, building buy-in and capacity among donors, government officials, and citizens is critical if geospatial development data is to be produced, maintained and used in the long-term.

In 2012, AidData joined forces with USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network to develop a center of excellence focused on creating geospatial data, tools and research for better targeting, coordination and evaluation of development assistance. In its first year of operation, the AidData Center for Development Policy worked with local governments, donors and civil society representatives in five countries (Nepal, Uganda, Senegal, Haiti, Timor-Leste) to develop and mainstream geocoded development finance data in advocacy, decision-making and research. In each of these countries, AidData partnered with the government and USAID country mission to produce a comprehensive set of geocoded data on aid project locations across multiple donors that will be publicly available via aiddata. org — an online data portal capturing development finance activities from 90 funding agencies worldwide. Aid Management Fellows embedded within ministries of finance built political will and local capacity to not only use the data and tools, but also to curate and maintain them.

In Nepal, for example, AidData partnered with the national government, AusAid and USAID to pinpoint over 21,500 geographic locations representing all donor-funded aid projects in the country. This information is now accessible via aiddata. org and Nepal’s Aid Management Platform following public release in June 2013. Over 400 government and donor officials were trained on using and maintaining the geocoded aid data.

AidData cultivates demand among civil society, universities and others through an initial scoping trip to identify key actors and gauge their interest and commitment to applying geocoded data for research, impact evaluation, and evidence-based advocacy. Through its Summer Fellows Programme, AidData deploys student researchers to provide training in geocoding and GIS for selected institutions to effectively visualise and analyse the geocoded data most relevant to their work.

This screenshot from Nepal’s public Aid Management Platform compares subnational aid investments in education versus literacy levels in Nepal.

In 2013, 11 student researchers embedded with local universities, civil society organisations and research institutes in five countries to build awareness of the value of geocoded data and tools. Nisha Krishnan, based in Dili, Timor-Leste, worked with the USAID to assess how geospatial analysis could be used to support their ‘Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment’. In Uganda, Emily Mahoney trained stakeholders in the ‘Scaling up Nutrition’ movement to geocode nutrition projects and integrate this methodology into the ‘Renewed Effort against Child Hunger’ mapping initiative. Mike Hathaway assisted Transparency International-Nepal to incorporate geocoded data into their foreign aid report, while Lindsay Read and Cherie Saulter trained students and faculty in geocoding and GIS at Makerere University.

Can aid information improve governance?

The ultimate value of geocoding doesn’t exclusively lie in the location information itself. Data visualisations simplify complex data points, convey information with greater ease and enable people to draw conclusions about patterns they observe. Yet, the potential end users of geocoded data may lack awareness of its value or have limited capacity to seamlessly integrate this data within their activities. Given the relative newness of these initiatives, it is difficult to say with certainty if geocoded data does indeed change the way that donors, governments and citizens consume information and make decisions. But the first signs are nevertheless encouraging.

Tilak Bhandari, an official with Nepal’s Ministry of Finance, provides one poignant example: In generating several maps for its 2012 Development Cooperation Report, the ministry discovered that too many donors were focusing in the same geographic areas and sectors, while one of the poorest regions of the country was experiencing a shortfall in assistance. “We didn’t know about [aid] fragmentation before, [but] now we have evidence,” says Bhandari. The Nepal government was able to use this information to identify gaps and engage in constructive constructive dialogue with international donors to bolster aid to its Far Western Development Region and adhere to a set of minimum project thresholds. USAID Nepal has also integrated this geocoded development finance data into the preparation of its Country Development Cooperation Strategy.

In Malawi, officials from the Ministry of Finance have also begun to realise the benefits of the geocoded aid data in their work as they now have real-time information on aid flows. The government mainly uses the information to do budgeting, resource management and future projections. The government has also seen substantial interest among its citizens on monitoring the aid flow. Similarly, Honduras is looking forward to the completion of its geocoding project so that such data can be made public and the government can plan on how and where to go ahead with its development work.

A growing number of donors and governments are publishing open aid information and geocoding their development portfolios. Simultaneously, improvements in Internet penetration and the proliferation of mobile phones are enabling a broader set of development actors, including local civil society groups, universities and citizens, to access this spatial data and create their own maps to analyse the funding flows. There is growing recognition of the potential of open data to, in the words of USAID Administrator Raj Shah, “dramatically accelerate progress in development”.

But there is still much to be done. Too many donors still do not publish detailed information on development projects that include geographic locations to the most local level possible. Development mapping initiatives have not yet systematically integrated hyper-local data from citizens. As private foundations and emerging donors are contributing an ever-growing share of development assistance, it will be of greater importance to integrate these new financial flows when considering the total resources available to countries for planning their development. In the coming years, the development community will need to tackle each one of these challenges related to spatial information.

In the meantime, AidData is attempting a few small steps forward. It has developed improved functionalities on aiddata. org that will enable any user to directly upload and tag information on aid projects and locations. It has assembled the world’s most comprehensive database on Chinese development assistance to Africa (china.aiddata.org) and will begin geocoding these projects later this year.

Finally, AidData will continue to build the capacity of donors, governments and civil society organizations to systematically incorporate geocoding within their work.