What use is aid and development data? Two examples from Nigeria

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Traditionally use cases for aid and development finance data have focussed on improved aid effectiveness. There has been an aspiration that donors might use evaluations to learn from and improve their own projects, a hope that development partners would use such information to coordinate their activities, reduce duplication of effort and ultimately reach more people. Equally aid accountability has been a focus – the belief that by making data available a variety of actors ranging from citizens in aid recipient countries to civil society organisations and governments themselves would be able to monitor aid spending and hold development partners to account where they were found wanting.

On a recent visit to Nigeria we were keen to find out how aid and development data is currently being used, if at all, and with what impact. We wanted to know if there is demand for aid and development data, and if these demands are being met. We found two very different sides of the aid transparency coin – one wholly practical, and one intangible but arguably more important.

In late November 2019 a team from Publish What You Fund was hosted by the Nigerian Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning. During a week of meetings the team met with a variety of stakeholders ranging from the International Cooperation Division of the ministry, to the Central Bank of Nigeria, and from international donor agencies to local civil society organisations. From an aid transparency perspective the visit was heart-warming – we heard a number of instances where data had been used by government to inform policy, or by civil society to hold donor projects to account. At the same time, however, stakeholders gave us many examples where better data would help.

A practical example: immediate impact

The first example, on the face of it, seems obvious, but it’s not a use case that the aid transparency community has really discussed. One of the most important roles of the Central Bank of Nigeria is to calculate the nation’s balance of payments (BoP) each quarter which includes a calculation of the country’s current account balance. While aid represents only a small proportion of GDP in Nigeria, the incoming flows represent a substantial proportion of the country’s current account balance (which was ~$2.8bn in the 2nd quarter of 2019). Without direct access to timely, comprehensive and disaggregated aid data, the Central Bank of Nigeria has to rely on the International Cooperation Division’s Development Assistance Database (DAD) to determine in flows of aid information. Unfortunately due to inconsistent provision of data by donors in Nigeria the DAD, at first glance, appears to be missing many hundreds of millions of dollars of aid spending. Under such circumstances the Central Bank has to estimate the incoming aid flows, making a further estimate of how much money remains in the country (i.e. not withheld by UN agencies, INGOs and consulting firms in the form of HQ salaries, overheads or fees). The current account balance of a country, and whether it’s in deficit or surplus is an important indicator of its economic health. It has a direct impact on the decisions made by policy makers and can lead to such measures as increases in interest rates, or the cost of exchange. Inaccurate, or underestimated aid flow information can have a very real impact upon fiscal policy.

A perception example: the importance of trust

The second example is all together very different. The Publish What You Fund team were granted an audience with Honourable Representative Mike Etaba of Cross River, Chairman of the Legislative Budget and NGO committees. Representative Etaba articulated a vision of development cooperation between the government and donor agencies, of building trust and mutual respect, all underpinned by a foundation of open, honest, transparent sharing of aid information. He rightly argued that without such information it was impossible to track funding, let alone measure impact – core responsibilities of his Committee. But concurrently he voiced sentiments we’d heard elsewhere; a challenge to the international community to proactively work to share information with key government stakeholders on the ground as a matter of principle. Nigeria is a sovereign state – actions undertaken by foreign groups within Nigeria’s borders are subject to the government’s approval, no matter how important or well-meaning they are. And you don’t have to look too far from Nigeria’s borders to see how scepticism of aid can quickly transform, how bureaucratic barriers can present themselves when recipient governments lose faith in the international aid system.

An opportunity?

But in Nigeria an opportunity exists. It’s an opportunity to build on sixty years of development cooperation, for donors and government to work hand in hand, openly, to ensure that future investment is evidence based, aligns with national priorities, and that the process, not just the result, helps build confidence and trust all around.

The Publish What You Fund team has since returned to the UK and is now reflecting on this experience. Questions abound as to the extent to which international development actors have undervalued the importance of aid transparency, and the extent to which these user cases illustrate the breadth of opportunity that awaits if we can collectively deliver timely, accurate and comprehensive aid information to in-country actors.

The Publish What You Fund Team is grateful to the Ministry of Finance, Budget and Planning for facilitating this visit, and specifically the International Cooperation Division who’s Director, Elizabeth Egharevba, and Deputy Director, Dr Faniran, took significant time from their schedules to be available for discussions. The team is also eternally grateful to Henry Asor, Development Assistance Database Manager, a UNDP funded Consultant hosted by the Ministry, who not only hosted, but provided invaluable insight into the workings of the Ministry, the donor community, and other stakeholders central to the use of aid data.