‘Lack of transparency is a reason why there is mistrust about aid’
In the last edition of our newsletter, we told you about a CNN item which showed funding from Western governments that was spent in Ghana by churches which are actively advocating an anti-gay bill. For this article, journalist Claire Provost used IATI data to be able to follow the funding from the churches in question back to the original donors. The donors in the CNN item – the US, the UK, Italy and Germany – all support gay rights in their policies, but the funding went elsewhere. Claire Provost visited the IATI Community Exchange in Copenhagen in March, and we took the opportunity to speak to her about her work, why she uses IATI data, and what she found when she started digging on the Ghana anti-gay bill.
Provost has worked for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, and other outlets, and is no stranger to topics like this. ‘I focus on human rights, democracy and development. I do a lot of investigative journalism and “follow the money” journalism.’
If you want to follow the money, you need data. Claire actually found IATI a long time ago, but wasn’t too impressed. ‘I have used multiple different sources and information in the past, and I have tried to use IATI about ten years ago, when people just started publishing. I didn’t think it was that useful then, I was very skeptical this was ever going to work. So I used things like CRS, UNOCHA FTS, and sometimes donors have their own portals or their own data sources. But I went back to IATI last year, and I was surprised how much it has improved. There is much more data, it is of better quality, and I found that pretty amazing.’
“As an outsider, it is very motivating to see all these stakeholders working together on transparency, and actually creating change. That really is quite special.”
This is also one of the reasons Claire visited the Community Exchange and hosted a session on her CNN item. ‘As an observer, an outsider, it is very motivating to see all these stakeholders working together on transparency. People inside governments, outside governments, tech people, all working on this super important issue of transparency and accountability, and actually creating change. That really is quite special.’
‘There are so many exciting things about IATI. One of them, which is pretty much unparalleled, is that the information is so up to date. The CRS data is already a couple of years out of date on the day it is published. IATI enables me, as an accountability journalist, to ask questions about what is happening now. It also enables me to see what happens after the first layer of budgeting and spending. There are often many steps in the chain, many implementing partners, as money is spent. You cannot see that in CRS and other sources, but in IATI you often can. There is not as much traceability as we need, but there is enough so that you can see the potential of it. You can see, as more organisations publish, and as publishing is more frequent, you get more complete answers to your questions, in a more timely fashion, in a way that is more relevant. This is important because aid is public spending, it is often a fiercely protected and defended form of public spending. This means that it requires all of the same transparency and accountability and monitoring as other public spending, especially because it has a very dedicated purpose. Transparency helps build trust in aid and development, broadly. It is deeply unsatisfying to only hear top level, generic information about commitments, and budgets, and then have no follow up. That doesn’t build trust in these programmes. There is a lot of mistrust, and the lack of transparency is part of the reason for that mistrust.’
‘So it is really exciting to have up to date information in IATI. But I do wish that more organisations published, that budget information for example was more detailed, that I would be able to find more project documents, and the text descriptions were longer. It varies between publishers, but sometimes an IATI activity only has a title and very short description that tells me what it is about, and one that doesn’t make sense. So what I want is all in the direction of more publishing. More organisations publishing, more regular publishing, more detailed publishing, more documents please, more linking of information please! Just… more! [laughs]’
Of course, we want all those things as well! And our partners and us are, in our opinion, already well on our way in this respect, and we hope others follow. Your CNN item is a great example of the bigger picture, of why we do all of this work for IATI. How did that story come about?
‘There was the anti-LGBTQ bill in Ghana being proposed, and there was a lot of international noise about that. In the context of the heated discussions and international condemnation of this, I wanted to take a look at what development partners were doing in Ghana. Who they were partnering with, what they were doing in human rights. So I downloaded data from CRS and IATI. I started looking through it, did text searches on LGBTQ rights, sexual rights, and I stumbled upon the name of one of the organisations that was lobbying very hard for this bill. And I thought: ‘Oh my goodness’. Then I went looking for more organisations involved in the bill. IATI was instrumental there because of the fact that some implementing partners publish, not just the donors. So we found UK aid that went through Christian Aid, which publishes in IATI, to the Christian Council of Ghana as their implementing partner. And the CCG is one of the organisations pushing for the bill.’
“I am very aware that finding issues can have all sorts of causes. What is important, is how the governments in the article addressed the issues, and they addressed them in different ways.”
The donors in the article were the UK, but also Germany, Italy, and the US. The Netherlands was not one of them, even though virtually all our implementing partners publish in IATI.
‘No, you were not! We really did go through the available data with a comb but the Netherlands didn’t come up. Maybe the Netherlands have perhaps better due diligence procedures, I don’t know. And the donors that did end up in the article are not necessarily “in trouble”. What I find more important than the data, is how they respond to the issue. I am very aware that finding issues in data can have all sorts of causes. There can be due diligence issues, there can be process issues, or simple human mistakes, these things can happen. What is important, is how the governments in the article addressed the issues, and they addressed them in different ways.’
The responses by the governments are mentioned at the end of the CNN item. Italy, for example, is quoted as responding: ‘We are not responsible for the use of these funds’. The US suggested that the funding was the result of the previous (Trump) administration’s policies. Germany responded quite unexpectedly. Claire: ‘The German ministry actually helped me find more of their relevant funding that I hadn’t found yet, which was very helpful and transparent. But then, Germany hasn’t addressed the fundamental accountability issue. German funding going to these anti-LGBTQ organisations has not ended, while it is now, I believe, the co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition. The contrast between Germany’s international commitments on the one hand, and their continued funding of anti-LGBTQ organisations on the other hand, remains. As far as we know, anyway. If there was a policy change in response to the article, it wasn’t public.’
Are you working on anything else based on IATI data, currently?
‘I am working on a few things, but I can’t share details. I am working with D-portal today. By the way, some of the tools to use data have been increasingly useful. What is increasingly exciting about IATI is not just that the data has improved a lot, but it’s also much easier to access it nowadays, and explore it. From my perspective, it seems like an important threshold has been surpassed and the possibility and value of IATI is no longer theoretical. What has happened so far is extraordinary and it feels like there is a momentum as well, so that makes me hopeful that this data will get even better and more complete, and benefit transparency and accountability more and more. This is important for development effectiveness and for democracy.’
More of Claire Provost’s work can be found on her website. Her book ‘Silent Coup: How Corporations Overthrew Democracy’, written with Matt Kennard, will appear next month.