Counting humanitarian aid is complicated because of the number of different people involved in donorship and delivery, all of whom define, channel, account for and report their contributions in different ways. There is no central repository of information. This makes it difficult to research and provide a simple answer to a simple question (“How much humanitarian aid is there?”), and tracking the money through the system impossible.
At every level choices are made about where, how and when to spend money. These choices will affect which organisations are supported, which people are prioritised and what type of need is met. More transparent data on how money is channelled through the system is a precondition for increased efficiency and effectiveness.
But the most important gap in the data is information about what has actually been delivered on the ground. We do not have systematic feedback from people affected by crises on what they have received and when. Without this feedback or aggregated data on what commodities and services have been delivered, the effectiveness and efficiency of the humanitarian response is hard to measure.
Stage one on the path of being able to track humanitarian aid from taxpayer to government to beneficiary is transparency by the donor. In some ways humanitarian assistance is ahead of official development aid (ODA or ‘aid’) as a whole since there is already a lot of real-time reporting. But all donors should make their humanitarian transactions fully transparent in a timely way, to common standards and in a form which makes them accessible to people and organisations in affected countries. Launched in September 2008 at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) aims to deliver a step shift in the availability of, and access to, information on aid flows by committing donors to work together to agree an accessible standard for the publication of information about aid including:
- an agreement on what will be published
- a common system for categorising different types of aid spending/commitments with all participants using the same terminology and definitions so that it will be easier to share and compare information
- a common electronic format that will make it easy to share information so that donors are not producing lots of different reports for different purposes but can publish data once in a form that allows it to be used in many different ways
- a code of conduct that will set out what information donors will publish and how frequently, how users may expect to access that information, and how donors will be held accountable for compliance.
The movement for improved reporting processes and increased transparency is gaining momentum and there are a number of organisations and governments working towards similar goals. In the meantime, we work with the best information we have and try to be clear about what it tells us and what it doesn’t. Using mainly data from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and UN OCHA’s FTS, we provide an indication of the main trends, sometimes using proxy measures and imputations. We think that the data we provide is a good start – but we know that it only captures part of the picture in terms of overall volume. It is not comprehensive. So we complement this with information from other sources through desk and, increasingly, field-based research. Our work to provide better information on funding flows – notably in the areas of delivery, domestic response, conflict and the military, needs and on non-DAC governments – is ongoing.