Karin Christiansen is the Director of the London-based NGO Publish What You Fund. Previously she worked as an economist at the Rwandan Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Agriculture and for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Catholic Relief Services in Croatia. On Tuesday her NGO released a study of how much information is available from major developmental aid institutions. Of the 58 donors examined, including the World Bank, the US Department of Defense and several EU governments, none rated "good," and the majority were deemed "poor" or "very poor."
Deutsche Welle: Can you briefly describe the methodology used for the study?
Karin Christiansen: The basic methodology was taking 37 different indicators to see whether we could find information and checking whether it existed. That's everything from fair policy documents, i.e. how donors chose countries to give money to, to the results they achieved. It's about really basic questions like who, what, when, where and why, and who spent the money.
That information was then sent back to the donors who checked themselves. We're not trying to catch anyone out. We're just trying to find the information. We tried to agree with donors on whether our findings showed they had the information or not. We also worked with civil society and citizens in the countries in order to do that.
You cite two tragi-comic examples. The fourth-largest aid recipient of the Austrian Development Agency aid is Austria itself, and almost the only information available about France's aid to Ivory Coast deals with a project commemorating 20 years of research into chimpanzees. Are these signs of corruption?
I don't know. I suspect some of the ridiculous examples may be. But I think a lot of this comes from people not thinking about it. Lack of competence more than anything. We don't really know what that finding in Austria really means. Does it mean the money is not leaving Austria, or is it going to Austrian organizations. It's just what their data says. With the Cote d'Ivoire example, I think it's pretty damning. There's a lot of money going from France to Cote d'Ivoire, and that's the only piece of information available.
So what you're saying is that the money might be going to the right places, but the French people have no way of knowing this.
And perhaps even more importantly the people of Cote d'Ivoire. Both sets of citizens, in the giving and the receiving countries, can't figure out whether it's a good use of money, if we don't know. Aid transparency is an interesting issue because it's not going to make greater accountability happen and produce less corruption and more efficiency. But it's hard, if not impossible, to achieve those aims without transparency.
You argue that the lack of available information means that donor countries may not know what other donors are doing and be able to coordinate their efforts. Can you expand on that?
An example is some work we did a few years back in Uganda, where we found 100 percent more aid and projects than people had previously known about. Obviously, somebody knew about it. But it means you might get two health centers too close to each other when it would be better to put one somewhere else. Or money gets put into a hospital, when actually what's needed is a primary health care center. Donors' inability to see others' spending means that nobody's money is having the best possible impact.
The other thing that's worth thinking about is what the recipient government, the Rwandan or Ugandan or Tanzanian government, can do with its own money. If they don't know what different donors are spending, they also can't spend their money well. I've sat inside the governments of such countries, and the frustration at not being able to plan properly is quite severe, as are the implications for accountability in those contexts.
You recommend that all donor countries sign on to and implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Can you briefly describe what that is?
The IATI is a basic standard of information, meaning the type of information and the format in which it should be published. You don't notice a standard until it doesn't exist. The metaphor I sometimes use is: If you leave the UK and travel to Germany and you can't fit your plug in the socket, that's when you know there isn't a standard for plugs.
The issue is to get donors to put their data in the same format so that when they publish it, you don't have try to figure out, for instance, whether it's the 11th day of the seventh month or the seventh day of the 11th month. Those are really basic ways of making data instantly work. It took us six months to map all the data in Uganda. That's ridiculous. If you make it machine-readable, which is what the standard is about, it becomes automatic. It's a way of speeding things up and making sure data can talk to other data.
The global financial crisis is putting pressure on wealthier nations' budgets, and some - most recently US Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney - have called for a wholesale revaluation of American foreign aid? Is this a watershed moment?
We've been through these cycles before, of pressure to decrease aid because of the [financial] circumstances. I think aid transparency is part of the answer to that pressure because it's a way of spending existing resources better. But there's a second really important element, which is that it helps people in the countries giving the money see where their money is going and that it's being spent well. It helps increase trust in aid. And that's what's needed to help support aid budgets through tough times. And it will also improve the quality of that spending at the same time. So that's why I think it's a particularly important issue right now.
Interview: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge