Will Donor Commitments Lift the Lid on Think Tank Finances?

11 February 2015
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

[Editor’s note: Guest blogger Andrea Davis discusses the implications of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard for think tank transparency. On Think Tanks does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of On Think Tanks. For a previous guest blog on donor transparency and think tank funding by Publish What You Fund published by Transparify, see here. Transparify’s call on international donors to make their think tank funding public can be found here.]

At the time of writing, over 300 organisations have published data on their development projects to the IATI standard – an open, electronic format in which data can be used, re-purposed or combined with other datasets to meet many different individual needs. Among the publishers are bilateral and multilateral donors, development finance institutions, NGOs, private sector entities and foundations.

Does this mean that in future, every grant given to a non-profit think tank (or NGO) by an IATI compliant donor will be visible, and if so, in what detail? The answer in short: it depends on exactly what the donor in question chooses to publish.

IATI, the International Aid Transparency Initiative, is a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to increase the transparency of all kinds of development cooperation, and improve its effectiveness in tackling poverty.

With open data, governments can plan and manage their budgets, combining both domestic and development cooperation resources, based on accurate and timely financial data. Parliamentarians, NGOs and citizens can hold governments to account on what development cooperation has been received and how it should be used. Community-based organisations can influence how resources are used. And journalists, researchers and activists can investigate how development cooperation resources are applied and what impact they are having.

IATI is a voluntary initiative, which means that organisations cannot be compelled to publish to the IATI standard. But those that do – as a result of political commitments they have made to improve openness, accountability and effectiveness in development cooperation – find themselves on the right side of the growing demand for open governance at global and national levels.

IATI provides the means by which donors can go into granular, activity-level detail about who receives their resources. DFID’s Development Tracker, for example, shows clearly which NGOs are receiving grants, in what amounts, and for what purposes. Development Tracker is starting to show real traceability – being able to track resources through the system, eventually right to the point of delivery.

However, a donor could choose to present its data differently – for instance, aggregated by funding stream or sector, or showing annual or quarterly disbursements without naming specific recipients.

This means that the degree of detail available to users depends on what and how donors choose to publish. IATI may provide the torch, but it’s up to publishers to turn up the light on their own activities. In some cases, donors’ torchlight may fall on the think tanks they support; in the case of other donors, it will not.

Fortunately, the trend is toward greater openness. The Netherlands’ open aid platform lets users see where the government is directing development cooperation by country and project, and its new budget tool allows users to track the Dutch aid budget down to the delivery of projects in-country. Similarly, Sweden’s new open aid portal features an easy-to-use interface that shows development cooperation by country, sector, project and funding amount (but does not necessarily name implementing partners).

IATI and Development Initiatives have developed d-portal, which shows IATI and other data from a single country perspective, enabling users to get the headlines as well as drilling down into sector or location detail.

Indeed, it is grounds for optimism that all of the top 25 scorers on the 2014 Aid Transparency Index, released by Publish What You Fund, publish to IATI. For proponents of transparency in development cooperation – whether in the activity of a donor, the influence of a think tank, or the ultimate impact on those they serve – this is an encouraging sign.