In about five minutes, any person armed with a computer and an internet connection can determine the exact amount of development assistance directed to the education sector in Uganda over the past 8 years. A quick query of the AidData website reveals that, since 2002, $643,103,401 (Constant 2000 USD) has been committed to the education sector in Uganda. Having this information at one’s fingertips is a huge step forward in aid transparency, but many people in the development field view this as merely a first step and see a need for more specific and accessible information on where the funding actually goes. Although AidData makes accessing a list of projects in the Ugandan education sector much easier, if I wanted to determine where within Uganda these projects are located, I would face a much more difficult task.
First, I might find myself looking for information that doesn’t exist. Many donors refuse to make their project documents public, making it nearly impossible to determine just where a project is implemented.
However, the problem is not always a dearth of information. With certain donors, the sheer volume of information actually makes accessibility a challenge. Let’s take the World Bank for example. Thanks to the Open Data Initiative announced in April 2010, all World Bank documentation is now publicly available. However, to find the sub-national location of a project, I would have to sort through hundreds of pages of PADs (Project Appraisal Documents), EAs (Environmental Assessments), ISDSs (Integrated Safeguard Data Sheets), PIDs (Project Information Documents), PPs (Project Papers) and other official documents. And then, in many cases, I still might be frustrated to discover that there is no concrete geographical information. I know this challenge well, as I spent six weeks of my summer working as a researcher on the Mapping for Results Initiative.
This new geo-coding initiative represents a partnership between AidData and the World Bank Institute. Over 6 weeks, our team of 13 interns geo-referenced all 1,216 active World Bank projects across 42 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, 27 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Indonesia, and the Philippines along with a selection of African Development Bank projects. In total, we coded about 12,000 specific geographic locations, but hopefully this is just the beginning.
We geo-reference by recording each individual location targeted by a development aid project as mentioned in the documents referenced above, down to the most precise geo-graphic level possible--sometimes even down to the neighborhood level. In June of 2010 there was no requirement within the World Bank to systematically report this information in a standardized way. In response to the difficulties this presented to our research team, the World Bank is now experimenting with a pilot program to introduce standardized location reporting into future project documentation. After finding all the location names, we then “reference” each location by finding its latitude and longitude, so it can be universally referenced no matter how many times administrative divisions may change (which can be many, many times). For a longer and more entertaining discussion of geo-coding and this project, see this video, which has lots of cool maps, created by Aileen Boniface (Virginia Tech), Patricia Austria (College of William and Mary), and Kelsey Ranta (Georgetown University).
Why is geo-referencing important? First, geo-referencing allows for better donor coordination. Simply knowing what projects are underway in a certain country is not enough to avoid project duplication within a given region. If only national-level information is known, it is possible that the bulk of donor activity will be clustered in one region of the country while other regions are neglected. Empirically, this does occur, as this map of World Bank projects in Kenya overlaid on a map of poverty levels by district illustrates:
Second, geo-referencing is important because nations are not homogenous. As the variation in poverty levels within Kenya illustrates, levels of need are not constant across a country. This certainly holds true with sector-specific indicators of need, such as infant mortality in the health sector or primary school enrollment in the education sector. We could have a much richer picture of whether aid flows where it is most needed by looking beyond whether aid is flowing to the neediest countries to whether hospitals are being built in the districts with the worst health indicators, power plants are being constructed in the districts with the lowest levels of electrification, and wells are being built in the districts with least access to clean water. If aid were consistently targeted to the areas where it is most needed, aid dollars could more effectively deliver development results.
Finally, geo-referencing is critical in the effort to improve accountability and dialogue with recipients. Reinikka and Svensson (2005) illustrate the power of localized information in increasing the percentage of government expenditures on education that actually reach intended beneficiaries. After a public expenditure tracking survey (PETS) stated that in the mid 1990s, the average Ugandan school only received 20% of central government spending intended for the school, the government instituted a newspaper campaign to inform Ugandan citizens of what their schools were entitled to in central government expenditure. A second PETS in 2002 stated that in 2001 the average school received 80% of central government expenditure. Though the causality between the newspaper campaign and the reduction of local capture may not be confirmed, this example certainly illustrates the power of localized information to improve accountability and create results. Without the reduction in local capture, nearly $106 million of the $177 million of aid to education since 2002 would have been lost.
Geo-referencing creates the localized information that empowers recipients to hold their governments accountable and makes it possible to easily visualize aid information so it is accessible and understandable. Greater transparency doesn’t help recipients if the information they need is tied up in hundreds of pages of text. Information accessibility is even more important than availability. As illustrated by the map above, geo-referencing can produce visualizations that make the inequities of aid distribution within a recipient country immediately apparent.
Through this initiative, the World Bank has been a leader in making its data not only available, but also accessible. We hope that the Mapping for Results Initiative will encourage other donors to undertake the project of geo-referencing their data.