The First Tranche
AidData's Blog
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Mike Tierney
Co-Director of the Global Research Institute and Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William & Mary
Dan Nielson
Professor and Associate Chair of Political Science at Brigham Young University
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Welcome to the First Tranche

While data is the centerpiece of the AidData initiative, we will be blogging about a variety of topics that are related to development finance.

March 20, 2010
Mike Tierney, Dan Nielson, Ryan Powers

Welcome to First Tranche, the AidData blog. We are starting this blog concurrently with the launch of the beta version of the AidData web portal -- a searchable catalog of development finance data. While data is the centerpiece of the AidData initiative, we will be blogging about a variety of topics that are related to development finance. We will discuss current research on foreign aid and development. We will use systematic evidence to comment upon contemporary foreign policy and international development issues. We will explore the relationship between the theory and practice of development. And we will generally try to bring more rigor and science to bear on aid debates that sometimes generate more heat than light.

But what is AidData and why are we blogging about it? AidData 1.0, the current beta version of the database and web portal, assembles more aid projects from more donors totaling more dollars than have ever been available from a single source before. AidData catalogues nearly one million projects that were financed between 1945 and 2009, adding or augmenting data on $1.9 trillion of development finance records. We currently have data from 87 different donors, and data from even more donors will come online every few months. 

We believe that aid transparency can help lift more people out of poverty and, more importantly, save lives. In part, our work on development and transparency is inspired by stories similar to those recounted by Reinikka and Svensson (2005). They found that in 1995 only 20 percent of a primary education grant program to rural Uganda actually reached its intended target. But by 2001 -- after officials publicized information about where the money went -- fully 80 percent of the funds made it to the schoolhouses. Björkman and Svensson (2009) followed up on this study with a compelling randomized controlled trial testing the effects of transparency on health care in Uganda. The experiment randomly assigned community health clinics to receive published "report cards" and NGO-organized public meetings on the quality of the clinics' health care.

 The results of this transparency "treatment" rivaled the effects of the best health interventions involving expensive new medicines, equipment, and procedures. Waiting time for care decreased, absenteeism among doctors and nurses plummeted, clinics got cleaner, fewer drugs were stolen, 40-50 percent more children received dietary supplements and vaccines, health services got used more, and, powerfully, 33 percent fewer children died under the age of five. This amounted to 550 saved lives in a small area of Uganda encompassing merely 55,000 households. This is strong evidence that transparency about development finance can save lives.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Our sense is that, while much aid likely does a great deal of good, as a whole international development finance could use some serious housecleaning. AidData aims to help throw open the shutters on aid to let in more light. Such sunlight may help recipients directly, and it will certainly help researchers who are interested in studying aid effectiveness.

The AidData team is an interdisciplinary group of political scientists, economists, sociologists, computer scientists, and aid practitioners who are committed to the idea that information about development finance should be improved and made more accessible to all potential users. The academics among us believe that all data has an inalienable right to be free (even if that right was not necessarily endowed by the data's creators) so that we can use it to learn how the world works. Our motto: "Liberate the Data!" The practitioners among us believe that more transparent aid will make aid more effective and thus improve the lives of people in developing countries. All of us want to put aid information into usable formats and publish it so that everyone has access to it.

Unfortunately, having "more data than before" is still far from "comprehensive." Much work remains to identify new donors and help them to liberate their aid data. Indeed, we have identified at least 30 additional donors that have not published their data yet. And we still need to improve the quality of aid information from current donors and augment those records by linking them to project documents. Importantly, we also plan to provide our users with interactive tools that will allow them to add their own comments, documents, photos, or additional data that might enhance what we know about a given aid project.

Along those lines, we are all big fans of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which was launched in 2008 in Accra, Ghana. It brings together donor governments, developing country governments, international organizations, and NGOs in an effort to promote and adopt clear and consistent international standards for disclosing aid information. We will do all we can to assist IATI and related efforts.

This is a group blog. Each entry will be written by a member of the AidData team, and that blogger is speaking only for himself/herself. We hope our conversations here will be both enlightening and enjoyable. Welcome to First Tranche.

-- Mike Tierney, Dan Nielson, and Ryan Powers

Michael Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William & Mary and Co-Director of the Global Research Institute.

Dan Nielson is a Professor and Associate Chair of Political Science at Brigham Young University.