The following guest post is from Francis Bacon, member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on Open Knowledge in Development and blogger at Pop Goes the Weasel.

A few weeks ago I received a large brown
envelope in the post. It contained a letter, written in reply to a complaint
I had made. And it contained a series of printed tables, showing how
£154m of international aid funds have been spent.

The letter was from Oxfam, the international
development charity. The tables included the name, location and amount
spent for every overseas project funded
by Oxfam in 2009-10
. To
my knowledge Oxfam are the first large British NGO to have released
information about their spending in such detail.

The tables are interesting. Some of
the projects listed have odd titles like “A Feminist look at Guatemalan
reality” (£24,890). Others are poignant and sad: “Vulnerable Group
Feeding in Midlands” (Zimbabwe, £2,959,757). Wherever you look you
think 'what is this project?', 'why was so much spent on that?', 'were
any of them effective?'.

Open aid data is important because
it’s the first step to answering these questions. Organisations like Publish What You Fund and aidinfo are piecing together the incredibly complex
jigsaw of how aid flows around the world. On its journey from the pocket
of a rich tax-payer or charity-giver to a project in the developing
world, aid funds pass through a multitude of organisations and funding
bodies. These paths criss-cross and intertwine, resulting in an entangled
web that is difficult to unpick.

The most damaging result of this complexity
is that there can be no feedback
loop
between the individual
donor and aid recipient. How can the public in rich countries hold aid
agencies to account if they don’t even know where the money was spent
or what it has been spent on?

Governments and multilateral organisations
have at last started to engage with the transparency agenda. Last year
the UK’s Department for International Development started publishing details of all
their projects
(although
I have a long-running Freedom of Information request for some of the
information they missed out
).
The World Bank and other governments are also starting to play ball.

But until now NGOs have declined to
publish their data. In July 2010 I
asked 8 large international development charities
, including Oxfam, to provide a breakdown of
their spending for the previous year. They all initially refused, on
the grounds that it would be too costly to produce the data. I pointed
out to some of them that, by refusing, they were breaching their own
Open Information Policies. To their credit, Oxfam
acknowledged this and subsequently changed tack
.

Oxfam have shown that it isn’t overly
costly to produce expenditure data and that doing so needn’t put staff
at risk. We should encourage other NGOs to follow their example.

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