‘If you do it well, IATI means less reporting effort’
Fred van Hese has seen a lot of the world. As a controller for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the last 23 years, he has been stationed in Pakistan, Zambia, Burundi, Afghanistan, and Benin. Six months ago, he started a new posting in Uganda. ‘The Pearl of Africa, is what Churchill called it, and I agree. It’s beautiful here.’
When IATI reporting was first introduced for the partners of the Netherlands, Fred was an enthusiast. Eight years and four embassies later, he still is. We called him to discuss why.
Fred, tell me where you see the benefit of IATI, for the embassy.
‘There are a few benefits for the embassy, and for our partners. Firstly, if done well, it saves the partner time on report-writing, and it saves us time reading reports. We are all busy, and it is difficult to find the time to read heavy reports, sometimes a hundred pages or more. Those thick reports do not always tell us what we need to know. We sometimes have to search really hard in those documents, looking for the information on the progress in achieving the results. So IATI really helps the embassy a lot because it is much easier to determine how the project is progressing. Of course, this is an adjustment for the people working in the embassies. To make this way of working a success, you have to be willing to work with data. Some of our colleagues were used to reading long descriptive stories, and seeing lots of photos.
The more IT-oriented colleagues seem to have less trouble. They visit Metis, and they immediately get the main information on the opening screen. And for details, they can click through. We all have to adapt to a new system of assessing projects. Good to see that many implementing partners publish their annual reports in IATI, and sometimes midterm reviews as well. This way, the partners work with us on a Dutch Open Government, transparent and open to society.
So everywhere I have worked since we started with IATI, I have made this a priority, and I have seen a lot of improvement. It is a lightening of the reporting burden, and that’s a big win in the long run for everyone working in the embassy, and for the implementing partners. They are working on getting results, instead of spending an hour every week writing a report. The start is sometimes not easy, but once the first report in published you quickly see the benefits.’
This is fascinating, because we hear from some people that IATI is a lot of work.
‘Yes, because those thick reports are still being written, too. Some of us still feel it gives them control, and partners still write them. So IATI just gets added to the workload, instead of it replacing work. And it is an adjustment, but if done well, IATI should make things easier. Some partners used to spend all year writing the annual report. It was a big relief for many of them when we told them they no longer had to do that.
I think those thicker reports don’t always get the read they deserve, anyway. Heavy reports don’t always make things clearer. Being brief is not always easy, but the less you write down, the clearer the picture can be. In a report of a hundred pages, results are scattered all over. Now, with IATI, we see clear indicators, in a table, in Metis. IATI makes it a lot easier to work towards more result driven programming.’ (The ministry calls this ‘resultaatgericht werken’ or RGW.)
‘You avoid a lack of focus this way. We have to be clear to our partners, where we as embassies want to see results. If there are too many indicators, efficiency may get lost. Trying to limit the number of indicators can help to focus on results. Keep on trying to find how we can measure the change we hope to contribute to.’
Wouldn’t this have happened without IATI? Technically, it’s not IATI that creates clearer result frameworks, that is good MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning).
‘Sure. Strictly speaking, you could also put that table in a PDF and have the same clarity. But that was not what actually happened. With IATI, that focus was much easier to achieve. And by publishing the information as IATI data, we also contribute to an open government. If you put it in a table in a document, it will be more difficult to aggregate the data for a sector or a country portfolio.
One of the big benefits is being able to compare activities. Now, when you’re in a design phase, of a project for school lunches, for example. I can now do something what was very difficult before: I can look up what the success factors were in Addis Abeba, in Bujumbura, in Cotonou, everywhere we did the same type of project. I can see the issues, challenges, and results, all within a few clicks.
In D-portal, you would even be able to see the results that other international actors may have had, in other countries, but also in the country where you work. Very valuable when you are starting new programmes.
One thing that I would love to do more of, is combine result information with financials. That helps enormously with monitoring. Sometimes, you get a proposal and the idea is: we will help a thousand women with this project, and it costs this much. Is that a lot? Is it not enough? Combining this information makes it much easier to design a realistic and successful project. We can work more evidence based.’
Is it worth it for the implementing partner?
‘I would say so! IATI is a great way for an implementing partner to show what it is doing. Partners should be proud of their work, and so should the ministry be. When you have published your activities in IATI, your results are published worldwide, they will be included in the results reporting to the Netherlands Parliament, the information is analysed by others in the world… As a partner, you should be proud of that, use it as publicity for your organisation for the results you achieve. And if you are a member of a strategic partnership, but not the lead, your work can be visible now, where before IATI, you were invisible and the results were only published by the lead partner. With IATI, you can show your contribution to the partnership. In my experience, they often see that benefit.
When we started with IATI, I was in Cotonou at the time. We included it in all contracts, and told every partner to start publishing. The first two organisations that did that, were a small human rights organization, and the government of Benin. Why would they be so eager? Not only because they would lose the funding otherwise since it was a contract condition, they also saw that it helps to publicise the collaboration. The government did something wonderful. Through IATI, they made it clear where our funding went. After the government received the funds, it went to local districts, who were publishing their results as well. So if someone wanted to know how much money went to which district and see the result, they could retrieve this information. If I live in a district in Benin, I can look up how much money my district got, and how many people got clean water because of it. You can see that in METIS or D-Portal but also in a tool the Benin government had built.
Of course, it takes effort when they first learn about IATI. So we need to support them well. Luckily, we have a good helpdesk open data, and we hear from partners that they are very happy with the support.’
That’s good news for us! We also find that the learning curve is a bit steep but it is much easier after the initial work of adding your first activity in Aidstream, for example.
‘I’m sure. We have an agreement of course, and this needs to be taken seriously. We have committed to funding the project, the partner has commitments as well, and IATI is one of them. It takes effort to get there, from both sides, but the result is definitely worth it.’
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