How would you describe an ideal development sector? In my view, this would entail development programmes being designed or adjusted based on continuously updated results of past and current programmes. Not just from your own organisation or region, but from all development and aid programmes carried out by all NGOs that operate worldwide. Wishful thinking, or realistic prospect?
In reality, NGOs in the field of development aid, face huge challenges in accessing up-to-date information. The problem here is not that more data should be collected. The problem is how measuring and reporting is being done. To name a few of the issues concerned, current data often is:
- in different formats- difficult to find
- not up-to date
- not comparable
- not consistent
- divided over many locations
- only looks back but does not forecast
- not comprehensive
This can result in 10 funded programmes being carried out simultaneously in the same region that deliver meagre results (e.g. conditional cash transfers), while a highly effective programme in another region is struggling to find funds to scale the initiative.
The potential of open development data
Knowing which programmes and initiatives are happening where, what money goes into it, and the results that are delivered, is crucial to establish the well-informed programme design as described in the first paragraph. Fortunately, a transition towards a more open, participative and networked development sector has already been put into motion. Transparency in cash flows, performance and results, also termed “open development data”, holds a promise of more effective distribution of aid and development services, better management, improved use of funds, increased stakeholder engagement and ownership, overall better outcomes and more impact as a result of global knowledge sharing through data.
How can all this data be shared then, in a comprehensible and usable way? In order to structure the accessibility and usability of open development data, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has developed a publishing framework, the IATI standard, which provides guidelines on how to collect and report data, thereby allowing data to be compared. From 1st January 2016 onwards, reporting to IATI becomes mandatory for all Dutch NGOs funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is expected that many other countries will follow in the coming years.
From outputs to outcomes en impact
Although government pressure to report to IATI creates an obvious push, the current interpretation of relevant “results” hinders achievement of open development’s full potential. As René Vermeulen also noted in his blog: despite the fact that reporting on outcomes and impact is possible in IATI, most organisations currently only report their outputs, i.e. the number of schools they’ve build or the number of people reached.
This does not tell you however, whether building these schools resulted in more children going to school, being empowered, gaining confidence, finding jobs etcetera.
Unlocking IATI’s full potential
If players in the field of development collaborate to use IATI as a database that includes complete data about projects’ context, budgets (input), outputs and achieved outcomes and impact, what we call IATI+, then insights can be unlocked that can positively transform the entire development sector.
The road ahead
Several hurdles need to be breached before reaching this full potential. The focus needs to shift from reporting outputs to reporting outcomes and impact, tools need to be developed both for easy reporting as for accessing and visualising the reported data. But most importantly: organisations need to become aware of the gains of adopting this new structure, not only for the potential it holds of increasing their own organisations performance and results, but for the potential transformation of the development sector as a whole through collaborative knowledge sharing.
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