Data and accountability

‘Aid Thoughts’ pitches in for improving statistical capacities of African governments. I couldn’t agree more.

Working closely with one of the biggest Ministries and its implementation arm in Ghana , I cannot even count the number of times we have had to deal with the lack of reliable data (and sometimes, any data). A lot of us would probably agree that this lack of data seriously hampers planning. But planning by/for whom? People like me – donors/INGOs and their consultants – who drop down from the sky on these offices, demanding to see good numbers on which to construct our new project proposals?

These questions are not new to me. The NGOs I worked with in India had exactly the same issues. Reports generated from data collected from the field were primarily for donor reporting. Implementation teams did not think they needed to look at those numbers – they thought they knew exactly what was going on, without having to rely on sets of numbers collected from the ground. And of course, a lot of the time, they were right. The implementer’s instinct is often shaped by years of collective experience and should not be discounted. However, a refusal to use data for planning and reviews is asking for trouble later, if not sooner.

Coming back to Ghana – what I have not seen is any discomfort among local officials at having less-than-reliable data. Is it that they simply don’t care? Is all planning just pushed by perceptions and based, at best, on broad-brush aggregate statistics? And most importantly, is all the data basically for everyone, but the citizens of the country.

Citizens holding their governments to account is a romantic ideal for development workers. We have all seen if happen sometimes, but not often enough. We have all seen places where any form of accountability is completely absent. Do people anywhere ask hard questions of their governments – not of what money was spent and how many schools/hospitals/miles of road/micro-loans were built/laid/distributed, but about the outcomes achieved, the changes seen over time?

Donors who have to be accountable to the tax-payers in their respective countries, are usually happy to ensure that aid-recipient governments report back to them. So if there is an additional $10 billion out there, it will be well-used, if invested in improving the statistical capacity of recipient governments and at the same time, encouraging mechanisms to to engage citizens by regularly communicating outputs and outcomes.

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