Written by: Reid Porter, Director of Transparency and Open Data and Carolyn Aeby, Director of Membership and Standards, InterAction
The foreign assistance community is embroiled in a decades-long discussion about what makes for efficient and effective development programming. The conversation meanders from rigorous impact measurement to participant engagement to brutally transparent data sharing. These conversations serve an important function in informing institutions and organizations of best practices. Often, though, conference plenary discussions fall short of two, arguably more critical functions – enabling, and (dare we say it) enforcing change. These jobs are better left to standards.
Within the development world, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) stands as the preeminent data standard for communicating and sharing information about project activities. The IATI standard continues to grow in global acceptance and use, but a chicken and egg dilemma remains: data users rightly criticize data gaps and quality issues, and data publishers (just as rightly) see little incentive to invest limited resources in improving data that is so underutilized.
In 2015, InterAction and its partners launched the Initiative for Open Agriculture Funding in part to address simultaneously these data supply and data demand issues. Our early learning suggests that the story of transparency and accountability is too tenuous to support the weight of a true data revolution, especially in a time of shrinking budgets and escalating need. Rather, a better story to tell is that of mass collaboration. Open data standards like IATI enable us to know “who is doing what, where, and what did they achieve?” which is critical for finding partners, learning from earlier projects, and targeting interventions effectively. In other words, open data isn’t just a disinfectant for waste and corruption; it can be a mechanism for learning, coordinating, saving time and money, and increasing impact. It is, if you will, an enabler of change, of better development.
Enforcement, by contrast, sounds anathema to the freewheeling world of NGOs, but many organizations have recognized the need for mutual accountability via standard-setting. Since 1992, InterAction requires each member organization’s CEO or Board Chair to certify that their organization is in compliance with a set of mutually-agreed ethical standards covering governance, financial reporting, fundraising, public relations, management practice, human resources, public policy, and program services. These organizational standards are intended to ensure and strengthen public confidence in the integrity, quality, and effectiveness of our members and their programs overseas. The goal is not to discipline or disbar members for non-compliance, but rather to support them in achieving a high standard that sets them apart from many other charitable organizations. In fact, InterAction’s Standards have directly and significantly influenced the standards-setting processes of comparable groups in Canada, Japan, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central Europe.
Standards cannot be enforced like law; it is better to think of them as cultural norms that govern our global activities. Organizations may sometimes balk at requirements, rankings, and regulations, but ultimately there is broad consensus that standards inform, enable, and enforce our commitment to program excellence.
The IFP, as well as its US member, InterAction, are thus governed by shared principles: democratic governance, transparency and information sharing; and equal participation of its members.