On a Quest for Aid Information That Is Actually Useful: Can Nepal Show the Way?

With financial support from USAID and AusAID, Nepal’s Ministry of Finance and AidData have pinpointed over 21,500 geographic locations representing all donor funded aid projects in Nepal.

August 19, 2013
Samantha Custer

Aid information must be not merely transparent, but actually useful if development stakeholders are to hold donors and local governments accountable for results. Reflecting on the dearth of project-level documentation in newly released aid information by MCC, USAID, and Treasury in the past month, Jennifer Lentfer of Oxfam America asked– “so what happens when someone wants to use this information?” In response, I pose a follow-up question – what would make aid information easily intelligible and actionable for local stakeholders?

People are most likely to use information that is relevant, timely and easy to understand with minimal effort. I would argue that there are three critical components of the solution: (1) publicly accessible, project-level documentation; (2) aid projects tagged with specific geographic information; and (3) dynamic maps that enable users to track where aid funds are going compared with socio-economic indicators.

The international aid community has certainly made important steps forward in releasing greater quantities of information on development finance. They have a long way to go before they provide this information in a form that is meaningful for most local development stakeholders. It’s time to raise the bar.

AidData’s partnership with USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network is proof positive that the development community can provide the type of information local development stakeholders are looking for. With financial support from USAID and AusAID, Nepal’s Ministry of Finance and AidData have pinpointed over 21,500 geographic locations representing all donor funded aid projects in Nepal. This information is now accessible via aiddata.org and Nepal’s Aid Management Platform following its public release in June 2013.

Photo: This screenshot from Nepal’s public Aid Management Platform identifies health project expenditures and benefiting communities related to USAID’s Nepal Family Health Program. Contributed by Josh Powell.

With geocoded data as a building block, stakeholders in Nepal can now use maps and dashboards to overlay project information with socio-economic indicators to visualize where aid funds are going at a subnational level compared to areas of greatest need. Critically, this allows people to localize development assistance – zeroing in on project activities and aid disbursements in the communities of greatest relevance to them.

Building buy-in and capacity among government, civil society and university actors is critical if they are to effectively use geocoded data to inform their advocacy, research and decision-making on development priorities. In Nepal, AidData and USAID trained over 400 government and donor officials to use and maintain geocoded aid data. Four AidData Summer Fellows provided training on geocoding methodology and GIS software for 68 individuals from Kathmandu University, Transparency International-Nepal, the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), among other institutions.

Photo: AidData Summer Fellow Madeleine Clark trains staff of CEAPRED, a local Nepali NGO in Kathmandu, to visualize geocoded aid projects to further their objectives. Contributed by Madeleine Clark.

As AidData, USAID and others in the development community use geocoded data and dynamic maps to make aid information more accessible and actionable for all stakeholders, I hope it sets a new standard for what we can expect from traditional and emerging donors. Information is power – but only if it is in a form we can understand and use.

Samantha Custer is Director of Policy Analysis at AidData.

Samantha Custer is AidData’s Director of Communications and Policy Outreach. This post is adapted from her comment on Jennifer Lentfer’s recent Oxfam America article. The AidData Center for Development Policy is a partnership of the College of William & MaryDevelopment GatewayBrigham Young UniversityUniversity of Texas-Austin and Esri.