UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, commenting on the post-2015 sustainable development goals, said recently,
“It is not enough to determine what the goals are; we must also address how we will achieve them. In order to succeed, we need actions that can turn commitments into results. And we need to monitor, review, and evaluate those results and make them accessible to policy-makers and the public….accountability is essential to assess progress and achieve results… We need an inclusive, robust yet flexible accountability framework.”
IATI is part of that “robust yet flexible accountability framework.” IATI stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a common standard and schedule for publishing development information. The objective behind such an initiative is simplicity itself: organizations working in international development commit to a common standard and regular schedule for publishing information about their activities. IATI increases transparency and accountability, helps improve coordination, and provides a space for engaging donors, communities, governments, and the general public in a broader development dialogue. IATI is good news for all of Plan’s donors.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented eloquently on the importance of publishing to IATI in the September 2014 USAID Frontiers in Development publication:
“Central to the new development landscape is a demand for transparency, accountability and data-driven decision-making.…Data is not just an opportunity for better, faster information, but also an opportunity to transform the citizen-government relationship….Integrating the use of data across development, and making the information available to the public, helps programs be more effective and reach more people.”
The last time I checked, 284 entities had signed on to IATI. Of this total, 23 are government agencies and 180 are International NGOs, like Plan International USA, one of the first U.S.-based INGOs to commit to IATI publishing. In light of this year’s launch of the Aid Transparency Index, I wanted to reflect on Plan’s journey into this realm, which has not been without its challenges. Our staff had trepidations about committing to a level of transparency most other organizations in our market had yet to embrace.
Plan and IATI
The initial effort started in October 2013, what I called Phase 1; it included only 15 grants, a very modest first step in our quest to “publish everything.” But it was a start. A year into the journey, what have we learned?
- Nothing “bad” happened. Almost one year ago I wrote about our organization’s effort to publish to IATI and our fears about the process. There was real fear that by publishing we would be inviting an unprecedented level of scrutiny, or that we might “reveal” important information to competitors. There were also fears that the task of publishing regularly would be too cumbersome. These concerns were legitimate risks, which we proactively set out to manage. We trained staff on what we would be disclosing, and why. We invested time and effort in data review processes. We created protocols for managing data inquiries. And we braced ourselves. One of the features of the “IATI Publication Process” is to create an “IATI mailbox/inbox” on our website, through which we would process any inquiries about the information we were publishing. We did receive several inquiries, though only one substantive. The avalanche of questions did not come. But if they had, we were ready. Transparency is not a new topic for our organization anymore. But addressing internal management information systems (MIS) challenges remains very much unfinished business, and until we have the right system in place, the effort will be more expensive than it needs to be.
- Some unexpected – but good – things happened. We internally defined our Stage I commitment to publish data on all projects over $200K where our organization was the “prime recipient.” As noted above, this effort created some work. But it also led to better internal conversations and introspection about reporting challenges, and to overdue efforts to simplify internal reporting across the board, ultimately reducing the overall reporting burden for every unit involved in producing the data. Adhering to the IATI standard fields meant that we now had a consistent framework for internal reporting across all grants management units. And this consistency improved project oversight and management across teams. We are working slowly but surely within the federation to pull more parts of Plan into IATI and to get to Stage II, during which we will start publishing more details on all expenditures. But we expect this to take another two to three years.
- Where is everyone else? InterAction (an organization representing almost 200 U.S.-based international NGOs) CEO Sam Worthington said recently, “More effective development requires all of us – donors, governments, NGOs and the private sector – to be transparent.” Unfortunately, only 180 INGOs – and only 10 U.S.-based INGOs – have signed on. What a pity. One set of standardized codes in open source format, widely adopted by everyone in the global development community would be a much more powerful tool to promote country ownership, donor accountability, and impact than almost anything else we can do to advance these principles. Data is power. Let’s get more data into the hands of those we aspire to help.