Monday, 30 August 2010

Information wants to be free

Oxfam has broken ranks.

In response to my formal complaint that the NGO was breaching its 'Open Information Policy', Oxfam have sent me the details of every overseas project they funded in 2009-10.

They admitted there had "been a breakdown in our internal communications" and that the information should have been made available immediately. Thanks to Joss Saunders (Company Secretary) for doing the right thing!

The spreadsheet of all 1017 projects is now online. It contains the title, location and allocated funds for every project in 2009-10. I had to scan in the list (the originals are here) so some of the titles have come out a bit dodgy (but I typed in the expenditures so they should be kosher).

As far as I'm aware this is the first time a major British international development NGO has published their spending to this level of detail. It's a really exciting time for the open aid data movement.

Some of the projects have laughable names: "Social dialogue and pedogic strategy on racism in Guatemala [sic]" and "Promoting active citizenship for the Right to the City in Cochabamba". But let's not judge a project by its title. Instead we should encourage Oxfam to release more information about the purpose and evaluation of these projects so that they can be properly judged.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that the funding for the projects follows a log-normal distribution (see the chart here). So the small projects are tiny compared to the big ones. If we look more closely at the data we can see that Oxfam is active in about 60 countries, but in about half of these it spends less than a £1m (at that level of funding a country office can't do much more than maintain a physical presence). Wouldn't it be better if Oxfam concentrated on making a measurable difference in just a few places?

There's obviously a lot more analysis to be done. What's interesting about working with this data is that as soon as you have it you want to know more: 'what is this project?', 'why was so much spent on that?', 'were any of them effective?' Hopefully the pressure on Oxfam (and others) to publish aid data will grow - and not diminish - as a result of them taking this first tentative step towards greater transparency.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Share your failures on FAILfaire.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Déjà vu all over again

In 2008 I asked 8 large international development charities to provide a detailed breakdown of their spending that year. None were able to.

In July 2010 I repeated the exercise with the same charities to see if anything has improved. It hasn't.

Here's what I requested, for each overseas project funded in 2009-10: 1) the name of the project 2) the location of the project 3) the total expenditure on the project in 2009-10. You can read the original emails here.

  • ActionAid - directed to Annual Report
  • British Red Cross - directed to Annual Report
  • Cafod - directed to Annual Report
  • Care International - no response
  • Christian Aid - directed to Annual Report
  • Oxfam - directed to Annual Report
  • Plan International - no response
  • Save the Children - directed to Annual Report
  • Tearfund - directed to Annual Report
(NB. None of the Annual Reports has the list of all funded projects that I was after)

All the organisations claim to support transparency. ActionAid, Plan, Save the Children and Oxfam are signatories to the INGO Accountability Charter. This states that "By signing this Charter we seek to promote further the values of transparency and accountability that we stand for, and commit our INGO to respecting its provisions." What's the point if they won't answer a simple query about spending?

Others have produced 'Open Information Policies' (lite versions of Freedom of Information) - ActionAid, Save the Children, Christian Aid and Oxfam all promise to release information in response to these sort of requests. But when a request is actually made, they balk.

So it seems that we are in an odd situation where all of the organisations agree with the transparency argument and understand its importance for donors, taxpayers, partner organisations and aid recipients. But they don't know how to change their organisations so that a standard request for information is responded to properly.

PS I'm going to submit formal complaints to the 4 organisations with Open Information Policies - I'll let you know how I get on!