Call to Action: Drive Demand for Open Foreign Assistance Information

“If you build it, they will come.”

This Field of Dreams motto applies to our aid transparency efforts over the past five years. The international community, including the U.S. government, has made a significant effort and expended substantial resources to improve foreign assistance transparency; whether anyone is showing up to utilize the data remains an open question.

The U.S. government and more than 450 other governments and international organizations publish data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).  IATI “opens up development to all stakeholders of development cooperation” with the belief that “widespread availability of information is an essential building block towards empowering citizens, governments and donors to collaborate and maximise development impact.”  We take our commitment to IATI seriously.  To date, the U.S. government has reported over 530,000 rows of activity data with a total transactional value of $249 billion for 198 countries and regions. We have made significant improvements in the quality and completeness of our data across multiple agencies during this time.  For example, the Department of State increased its score on the Publish What You Fund Aid Transparency Index from 22.14% in 2013 to 53.9% in 2016, a 30 percentage point increase.

But none of our efforts will lead to the realization of IATI goals if knowledge and use of the data is nonexistent.  IATI data is no doubt valuable, but data generation is not enough without awareness or capacity to use it.  We are frequently asked how data we are gathering will be used.  This question lacks a clear answer, which then serves as a disincentive for suppliers to improve the quality or make additional data available.

So, the question remains – What do we know about the appetite for foreign assistance information outside of transparency circles and Capitol Hill? The truth is very little.  We know how we hope data is used and cite anecdotal information on how specific organizations have used data. Conversely, we have equal, if not more, anecdotal evidence on lack of use and awareness. 

Freshly back from a recent trip to Thailand and Indonesia to discuss our aid transparency efforts, I have a few more anecdotes to add to our evidence base.  Across constituencies in Indonesia and Thailand, there is extensive understanding of open data and high analytical capacity to use data for decisions and accountability, but very low interest in foreign assistance data.  The primary focus is on domestic government accountability.  In Indonesia, the government is mining citizen feedback data for government decision-making and delivery of public services. I witnessed this demand first hand in the Ministry of State Apparatus Empowerment and Bureaucratic Reform (KemenPAN), the office in the Indonesian government responsible for a popular citizen feedback tool called LAPOR!.  In Thailand, civil society is hungry for government spending data in order to monitor campaign finance and hold politicians accountable for the funds they receive.

We cannot be successful if our target audiences are unaware of IATI and other foreign assistance data resources. 

My interaction with governments and civil society revealed a lack of awareness and interest in foreign assistance funding, even among those working in the realm of open government, transparency, and accountability.  Some of this is likely due to the fact that foreign assistance makes up a small portion of the financial flows in both countries.  Foreign aid is a small percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), less than 1%. That being said, in absolute terms, Indonesia received $4.7 billion in foreign assistance from IATI donors in 2015

The USAID Aid Transparency Country Pilot Assessment in 2014 and the Department of State’s GovUP initiative in 2015 also found low awareness of international aid transparency tools. USAID assessed demand for data on U.S. government aid flows in Zambia, Ghana, and Bangladesh, while GovUP assembled data-minded individuals in Kenya to discuss development data for decision-making. Both initiatives revealed a lack of awareness of IATI by stakeholders including ministries of finance and other line ministries, members of Parliament, media, civil society, private sector entities, and academia.   However, when presented with project-level data downloaded from ForeignAssistance.gov, stakeholders understood the potential value. Foreign aid in Ghana, Zambia, and Kenya is 2.8%-4.3% of GDP – higher than in Thailand and Indonesia – but, these countries have comparatively low data literacy.

We cannot be successful if our target audiences are unaware of IATI and other foreign assistance data resources.  We must all commit to not just increasing the supply of aid data, but to raise awareness and demonstrate use cases.  For this reason, the U.S. government included a commitment in its third Open Government National Action Plan to build capacity for data-driven development. 

To this end, the U.S. government established an interagency working group to collaborate on our data use activities. At ForeignAssistance.gov, we are doing all we can to get data in the hands of researchers, students – even hackers (ethical ones, of course).  Through the Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab program, we are putting data in the hands of students at leading universities to use and suggest improvements.  And we very recently released an updated web API for developers to access.

A single party cannot increase demand alone; it will take all types of organizations across sectors – public, private, nonprofit, and civil society. We can no longer operate under the assumption that demand and use of data will occur organically. Serious commitments to communication, education, and outreach by the entire aid transparency community are the only way that we will achieve the goal of empowered data users at scale.

As part of the upcoming National Day of Civic Hacking on June 4, we issued a challenge to developers, government employees, designers, journalists, data scientists, non-profit employees, UX designers, and anyone else with an interest to use our data to tell a story.

So you tell us – how can data on foreign assistance be combined with other datasets to tell the story of U.S. investment and diplomacy overseas?  Be a driver for demand and rise to the challenge.


By Dennis Vega, Managing Director for Planning, Performance, and Systems, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, U.S. Department of State.