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  • Blog
  • 22 September 2021

How control of data is making international aid agencies so powerful

We look at the role data plays in the power disparity between national and international aid donors in fragile contexts such as Somalia.

Written by Martha Getachew Bekele

Delivery, Quality & Impact Lead

When the Government of Somalia expelled Nicholas Haysom, a top UN envoy, at the beginning of 2019, many were taken by surprise. The reason given by the Government of Somalia was that Haysom acted “as though he is the head or the ruler of Somalia”.

Arguably, UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) at times present themselves as too powerful, particularly in fragile countries. This is not a matter of perception: the relationship between national and international actors in developing countries is typically unequal. In our study on localisation in northern Kenya, which focused on the various partnership modalities between local and international humanitarian actors, we found that this is not only about financial muscles. It is also related to the power dynamics between local and international actors. In addition to insufficient and inflexible funding, local actors complain of inequitable partnership modalities and practices, and weak capacity as compared to international aid organisations.

What makes these agencies powerful?

One of the reasons why international aid agencies have power is their control over data. This is documented in our analysis on harmonising registrations and identification in emergencies in Somalia. One of the major findings of this study was the reluctance of implementing aid agencies to share data platforms with other implementing agencies. From our many formal and informal interactions with data stakeholders in Somalia, we were able to discern the political nuances surrounding the de facto non-shareable registration platforms. Holding on to data or owning the largest database under the guise of non-sharable data policies has more to do with power (relevance and access to funds) than concerns over data security or protection.

Control over data starts at the stage of data collection, as established by the aid data business in Somalia study by the Somali Public Agenda. The study shows that local researchers are brought in once the research design is finalised. Locals are relegated to primary data collection, before being removed from the data analysis and write up, which is carried out by international organisations and experts. The study also notes that data collected for these studies is used to design and/or evaluate donor funded programmes, and is rarely published.

The harm done by enclosure of the knowledge commons[1]

The argument is that aid data that should normally be available publicly is enclosed. Non-interoperable data platforms and reluctance to share data among implementing aid agencies could only serve the data owners.

We can draw comparisons between privatisation and the locking up of information by international (humanitarian) organisations and the concept of ‘enclosure of the knowledge commons’, as discussed extensively by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz’s analysis of enclosing knowledge commons within the intellectual property regime drew a conclusion that it ultimately leads to lower levels of innovation and investment in innovation, which is contrary to the sole primary reason for protecting them to begin with.

Similarly, privatisation of aid data by humanitarian agencies could potentially harm communities. Gathering new information while it exists somewhere else delays assistance delivery during emergencies. Unavailability of functional interoperability of data systems wastes data that could be used to implement effective programmes within vulnerable communities. Approaching households repeatedly for data collection is not only tiring to people living in poverty, but is also unfair, manipulative, and robs them of their dignity. Moreover, resource wastage from the duplication of efforts and the likely duplication of assistance necessarily excludes certain vulnerable groups from receiving assistance.

Putting a stop to complacency

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with national governments to enact and enforce standards and protocols on data management over the whole data life cycle. Efforts towards functional unified social registry systems, for instance, will solve many of these problems and allow for the running of effective national safety net programmes.

Donors also have the power to put meaningful pressure on implementing aid agencies. Presently, donors prefer to work with agencies with large datasets. While the regulation of data management and the involvement of local actors may be left to governments, the donor community could also step up, instead of being complacent. During our discussions for the study on harmonising registrations and identification in emergencies in Somalia, we found that donors are not well coordinated to put pressure on implementing aid agencies around systems interoperability and harmonisation. An improved data ecosystem is beneficial to all, especially to the communities that donors are trying to assist. In addition, it increases the accountability of donors to the taxpayers back home.


  • 1Enclosure of knowledge commons refers to the fencing off of ideas or privatisation of what would otherwise be in the public domain. See Boyle (2003) for an excellent discussion.