Dispatches from the Field: Exploring Aid Transparency in Malawi

In recent years, the international community has made tremendous progress in sharing foreign assistance data with the public through the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Aid transparency has the potential to empower citizens, governments, and donors to maximize development impact – but only if the public is aware of its existence and can access it, regardless of individual background or experience.

The U.S. government makes our foreign assistance data available through the ForeignAssistance.gov (FA.gov) web portal. Seeking clarity on the awareness and access of U.S. foreign assistance data and transparency, I traveled to Lilongwe, Malawi, for a one-week exploratory trip. The focus of the trip was two-fold:

1) Understand the demand for and use of foreign assistance data, and;
2) Raise awareness among target groups including journalists, technologists, civil society, other donors, and the host country government of Malawi.

Dennis Vega speaks with local technologists and data enthusiasts at the mHUB in Lilongwe, Malawi. [State Department photo]

These consultations uncovered a strong interest in transparent foreign assistance information made available to the public. Across the spectrum, stakeholder groups in Malawi could identify how they would use foreign assistance data to hold their governments accountable, promote coordination among donors, or identify the location of a proposed project. We learned of the data collection efforts underway at the Mission and the Government of Malawi’s newly updated Aid Management Platform, and even did an interview with Zodiak, one of Malawi’s top broadcasters!

Our team was able to further understand the in-country challenge of having multiple datasets with similar information but different use-cases, driving differences in numbers or narratives due to point-in-time collection and level of specificity needed. Learning about these opportunities and challenges, our team was able to pause and reflect on whether the current model of data preparation—with multiple layers of transmission through the bureaucracy—is the best process to achieve the ultimate goals of aid transparency. The aid transparency community must not only look at ways to improve technological capabilities but examine all aspects of our efforts. For example, would adopting a country-level model allow for more customization and be better-suited to accomplish aid transparency and operational efficiency goals?  How do we determine the value of data when each stakeholder’s needs differ? These are the questions we must continue to ask ourselves.

With knowledge in hand, our team has returned to Washington, D.C. to continue to improve the quality of the current data available, streamline the data collection process, and increase awareness of the data. We plan to use the lessons we learned in Malawi to help inform future initiatives. It is imperative that we drive demand for foreign assistance data to understand how it is actually used by citizens, governments, donors, and others for accountability, transparency, and more effective development. To do this requires getting out from behind our desks and putting the user at the center of the transparency model.

About the Author: Dennis Vega serves as the Managing Director for Planning, Performance, and Systems in the State Department's Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources.

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Posted by Dennis Vega
January 13, 2017

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