Each year, students at the LBJ School participate in a yearlong policy research project that focuses on a large policy issue. Students spend a year at the school diving into a real-world problem and researching a solution with their instructor. This type of policy research has been at the core of the school’s curriculum since its inception more than 40 years ago.
This year, Dr. Catherine Weaver and her class of 18 Master of Global Policy Studies students examined an issue at the heart of the international development aid transparency movement: if you invest millions of dollars in building transparent data systems, who will use that data? How, and why?
In the past decade, the big data revolution has redefined how governments and citizens interact to promote transparency, accountability, and social innovation. Through major global initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, governments have committed to disclosing information — including data on budgets, contracts, and procurements — to allow citizens to see where and how tax and aid dollars are spent. The ability to access this information in turn enables citizens to more fully participate in governance processes through better informed advocacy, improved mechanisms to identify and fight corruption, and the harnessing of technology to improve lives. This open data movement is especially important for international aid, where nearly $150 billion is spent per year in over 70 countries worldwide by hundreds of governmental and non-governmental agencies, with little transparency and accountability.
Students collectively spent much of their first semester gathering data, conducting background research, and honing in on their research question. They went through intense interview training for their trips overseas and worked on smaller research projects to better understand their approach and the environment they would be working in.
“From the first day of class we dove deeper into the issues surrounding open aid and donor coordination through Skype interviews with practitioners as well as additional reading and research,” said Jacqueline Homann, a 2015 MGPS candidate. “This all served to lay the groundwork for the fieldwork that we conducted after winter break.”
In recent years there have been significant changes in how data is accessed, used, and shared. In many cases, governments have been leading the way. Within the last decade, the international development sector has followed by creating initiatives to track, map, and monitor aid data. Because of this initiative, aid-receiving countries have pursued open data initiatives by adopting in-country Aid Information Management Systems (AIMS) to better capture timely and comprehensive data on on- and off-budget aid in their countries. Similar global level initiatives, such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative and AidData, have followed suit. This research was supported in part by the LBJ School’s partnership with AidData, under the auspices of a $25 million grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Higher Education Solutions Network.
Throughout the course of the class, small groups of students had the opportunity to travel to Kathmandu, Nepal; Kampala, Uganda; and Washington, D.C. to compile data and conduct interviews with donors, politicians, NGOs, and think tanks.
“Over the winter break, we began drafting the report and carried out our pilot interviews in Nepal. During the second semester, we set out in small teams to Nepal and Uganda to interview donors and gain a better understanding of how data is being used there,” said Amelia Pittman, a 2015 MGPS candidate. “It was a challenge to keep organized and on the same page as we conducted over 100 interviews and consultations with individuals in Nepal, Uganda, and Washington, D.C., but I learned a tremendous amount through that process.”
“My main hope for this project was that it would see real-world use among open aid data advocates.” - Amelia Pittman, 2015 MGPS candidate
Pittman, who traveled to Washington D.C. for the project, noted being struck by how interconnected all the different organizations are in the area and how important it is to cultivate relationships in a large-scale collaborative environment.
The opening of aid data is seen as essential to increasing transparency in the aid management, eventually leading to greater aid effectiveness and improved development outcomes. The devastating earthquake in Nepal in April – just one month after the PRP team was in Kathmandu – underscores the need for greater transparency in development aid.
“Donor coordination and the effective delivery of services, especially in emergency situations, is contingent upon having real-time information on how much aid is coming into the country, to what areas, and through which delivery mechanisms,” said Dr. Catherine Weaver. “The lack of donor coordination after the earthquake in Haiti in 2012 not
only hindered relief efforts, but may have inadvertently caused further problems by undermining the capacity of the Haitian government to manage domestic resources. The Haitian experience, and now the Nepal experience, underscores the necessity of not doing more harm than good by demanding aid providers to work together to avoid redundancy and make sure the real needs are met. More transparency and accountability in aid help us work towards this goal.”