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The UK needs to show leadership on transparency of international development aid

By Dr David Hall-Matthews.

From hosting the G8 to leading on the Open Government Partnership, this continues to be a landmark year for the UK leadership on the world stage. Prime Minister David Cameron has been clear that the common thread running through all these international development events centres on transparency, openness and accountability.

We at Publish What You Fund applaud the UK's role in furthering the case for transparency in general. Our particular priority is how aid transparency will improve effectiveness. As DFID is currently the most transparent aid agency, according to our Aid Transparency Index, we think it would be a missed opportunity if UK does not use their leadership role to push the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in international forums as well. IATI is a cutting-edge global standard which offers a common standard for publishing aid information. It satisfies our four pillars of transparent aid, ensuring data is published in a manner that is timely, comprehensive, accessible and comparable.

Our message to David Cameron is that now he must go beyond talking about transparency and make sure world leaders deliver on it, at a time when the UK is in a unique position of influence in four major international development agendas:

The first three agendas involve both donor and recipient countries – a marked shift in the traditional power dynamics of international relations. The fourth (the G8) represents the world's largest bilateral donors, i.e. countries that have a lot of influence over reducing poverty. In all these forums, transparency demands essentially boil down to the same thing: better governance, better use of public resources and improved accountability.

The G8, taking place in the UK in a week's time, has three themes, including transparency. There has already been a lot of public discussion around tax transparency and an important push on transparency of extractive industries, with the UK and France signing up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in May.

We are keen that aid transparency will not be forgotten in the conversations at the G8. Aid sits alongside tax, corporate and government income transparency as different pieces of the bigger good governance puzzle. A clearer understanding of governments' incomes and expenditures requires transparency on how they are funded from all kinds of flows. Only then can local campaigners hold governments to account for their decisions, disbursements and service delivery. Transparency across the piece is therefore a starting point for dynamic relations of trust between governments and citizens throughout the world.

Donor nations have been promoting good governance in recipient countries for over twenty years. Aid transparency is an important step here, too. It is high time that leading bilateral and multilateral aid agencies practiced what they preach. Anyway, the best way to achieve openness in developing nations is not to harp on in a discredited top-down way, but to exchange ideas on a more equal footing. The Open Government Partnership is the perfect setting for this. Currently co-chaired by the UK with Indonesia, the dynamic of the OGP is flat and co-operative, replacing donor-recipient power dynamics with national action plans and peer review. The OGP is not about development at all. It promotes openness and good governance everywhere, and provides a forum for sharing best practice and encouraging other governments. This means that although UK cannot preach, it can evangelise advantages of openness. This is a message that needs to be pushed proactively, as evidenced by Russia's recent withdrawal from the initiative.

Once again, this is a forum that the UK could use more actively to promote IATI, which would particularly benefit aid-dependent countries in Africa and Asia. IATI allows these governments to track external development finance, and to properly align aid flows to their own budgets, helping them to decide where best to allocate their resources. In turn, those governments will be able to present a more complete picture of public spending to their citizens.

The UK is also co-chair of the GPEDC, which emerged from the High-Level Forum on Aid-Effectiveness at Busan. The GPEDC again reflects the changing power dynamics of development, including emerging powers and emphasising their importance for future of development cooperation. The co-chairs – Justine Greening, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Armida Alisjahbana of Indonesia – represent donors, recipient nations and emerging South-South Co-operators respectively.

The GPEDC is a key forum for the UK to push transparency and benefits of openness, and although its first ministerial meeting has disappointingly been postponed from autumn 2013 to early 2014, it is still an important opportunity for different stakeholders – including civil society and private sector voices – to make transparency demands of each other. Donors have committed to comply with a common open standard for aid data – to include all aspects of IATI – by the end of 2015. The GPEDC will play a central role in ensuring compliance, as well as bringing new development actors into the fold.

Finally, David Cameron has positioned himself firmly at the centre of the Post-2015 MDGs agenda. The updated recommendations, released in late May, are a dramatic shift from the existing goals, and call for a 'data and information revolution'. Transparency and accountability are at the heart of this new framework to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

A focus on improved data and measurable goals will mean, for the first time, that policymakers and citizens will be able to track progress of the new goals, monitor the delivery of services and hold governments accountable for their actions.

Access to information can potentially transform the relationship between not only citizens and governments, and also donors and recipients. Open data for all to use has the power to reduce corruption, improve decision-making and allocation of resources, empower citizens and support good governance: all prerequisites for creating local ownership and responsibility and ultimately, successful poverty reduction.

We have worked alongside aidinfo and other partners to develop civil society training modules on how to use – and demand – transparent aid data, alongside other fiscal information. Aidinfo have worked in Kenya, Nepal and Uganda to support the use of open data and to improve its quality. They tell us that people in developing countries are increasingly realising the potential of open data and the role it can play in ending poverty.

We applaud the High Level Panel for recognising the critical importance of transparency. Its call for an "international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens" has the potential to be genuinely transformative.

But we can not stop there.

The Prime Minister needs to show imagination and perseverance to achieve an agenda that will deliver change and real outcomes. Organisations, like us at Publish What You Fund, believe that as more donors continue to publish information to the IATI standard, it will be easier for all stakeholders to hold their institutions and governments to account.

Publication of aid information to IATI is a flagship transparency initiative for the UK Government, with DFID publishing to the highest standard. This means we are able to point to the UK as an example for other large donor nations – such as the U.S. – of how they should be publishing their aid information.

The time for transparency and open data is now, and we want to see agreed goals and commitments. We know this is an issue that the UK takes this seriously, but the government cannot afford to be coy about pushing it. They are world leaders in aid transparency and should encourage others to follow.

June 2013

Dr David Hall-Matthews is Managing Director of Publish What You Fund