Transparenz als "Selbsterhalt" der Geldgeber
Reflections on a recent online debate with Dirk Niebel. How does development cooperation change in the age of digital media? This is the question Cherno Jobatey, a well known German journalist ask Dirk Niebel (German Minister for Economic Development and cooperation) and Till Behnke (co-founder of betterplace.de a German micro funding platform) in a recent online debate.
The good news is Niebel confirmed his support for transparency in development cooperation in this debate. The minister even welcomes the degree of transparency possible through the betterplace approach. "I wish, Niebel said, "that we in governmental development cooperation would be so advanced and could allow people to look into projects and see how a project has evolved so far". This would increase transparency and reduce the risk of failure, Niebel added.
As Till Behnke points out, this wish is not that difficult to fulfill. In fact, the German government could use betterplace and similar platforms like AKVO to allow taxpayers in donor countries and citizens in aid recipient countries to have a better understanding of aid projects and to provide feedback. What Behnke means by feedback, can be seen on betterplace: ordinary citizens who have an interest in a project and knowledge about it post a comment online.
What Niebel means by feedback is more obscure to me. His response to the challenge of online monitoring and feedback processes is the independent evaluation body, that is created in Germany in 2012. Expert evaluations have been, until now, the opposite of publicly available, accessible and detailed information about project progress. Commissioning expert evaluations and using this knowledge is in my view pretty much the opposite of a crowdsourced feedback mechanism. Nevermind. I may come back to this point at a later stage. For the time being I am happy to hear that Niebel does cherish transparency and sees a lot of potential in technology to advance transparency.
But what about International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)? IATI is currently the most promising open data initiative in development cooperation and I was extremely pleased to see that somebody in the audience, Ulrich Schlenker from the German NGO network VENRO, challenged Niebel on the IATI. Niebel's response was disappointing. Yes, explained Niebel, Germany supports IATI, but the IATI information standard demands too many details. That is interesting. Haven't we heard just a few minutes earlier, that Niebel would be happy to see ordinary citizens to get an insight about specific projects online? How do you do that without details, I wonder! Niebel continues, that the IATI standard in theory is all very well, but actually implementing it in governmental development cooperation would oblige project staff to spend so much time on reporting to justify their work, that they wouldn't have time left to do their job.
This is wrong! For several reasons.
First of all, aid transparency is not simply to justify the work done by project staff. The word used by the Minister in German is "Eigensicherung" - "self preservation". If Dirk Niebel has this understanding of aid transparency, he really needs to digg deeper into the aid transparency debate. In my understanding the purpose of aid transparency is to ultimately make aid better, get more value for money if you like, and to allow citizens to defend their interests.
Secondly, the IATI standard consists of two phases. The first phase exclusively contains information that is already collected by project staff. So implementing the first phase of IATI would imply no additional data collection whatsoever for project staff. It would require some work for headquarters, particularly for IT people. More work at project level is certainly not a valid excuse for implementing the first phase of IATI.
Thirdly, the standardisation of aid information by IATI is expected to reduce the overall reporting time and thus safe costs. There are rough cost estimates about how much IATI would cost for all IATI signatories and how much financial benefits are reasonable to expect. These estimates are also based on interviews with governmental aid agencies in Germany and in projects. If only the improvements in information management are considered, the benefits of IATI will outweigh costs after three years or less. If the expected reduction of corruption, the improved allocation of aid and the reduction costs for data collection for NGOs are considered, the costs could be recovered in days.
No, Minister Niebel, this is just not good enough! If transparency is a priority of the German ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development there is much more that is possible!