6 August 2014

Africa: Scheme Equips Locals With Skills to Spot Aid Abuse

Washington DC — A programme that dispatches student researchers to train civil society organisations in the developing world in data handling skills so that they can track aid and development spending in their locality is expanding this year. This training is designed to help local people hold donor organisations to account, according to the programme's organisers.

AidData's Summer Fellows programme entails sending 'student fellows' for two to three months during the US summer to organisations around the world. There, the fellows train staff in these institutions - including non-profits, think-tanks and universities - in data literacy and in how to track aid spending on a more local, detailed level than they could before.

The programme is in just its second year, but AidData hopes that some of the organisations will eventually be able to crack down on development aid waste and fraud.

AidData has 21 fellows this year - nearly double the 11 dispatched in 2013. They are working with 12 organisations in the same five countries as in the inaugural year: Mexico, Nepal, Senegal, Timor-Leste and Uganda.

The programme is one prong of a five-year partnership with the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) Global Development Lab.

Data on development aid are often only available at the national level, making it hard to know what happens to money earmarked for specific projects within a country, says Alena Stern, a programme manager at AidData.

But Stern hopes the partnership will empower organisations by providing them with data at the level of individual projects. This is achieved using geographic information systems (GIS) tools - in particular, a technique called geocoding, which tags specific projects to a precise geographic location.

"It provides groups with information on where the money is supposed to be going so they can hold leaders accountable if the money doesn't show up or if the results promised aren't delivered," Stern says.

The first year of the fellowships sought to provide partner organisations with a foundation in data training and tools, says Rebecca Latourell, policy outreach specialist at AidData. The organisation, she says, hopes to better understand what some of the resulting policy impacts might be after this second summer of fellowships.

Among this year's projects is one helping the Ugandan chapter of anti-corruption group Transparency International (TI) with geocoded information to support its Action for Transparency programme that seeks to use technologies to monitor certain government spending. Two fellows have trained staff to produce better maps and data visualisations to present findings to stakeholders and policymakers, according to TI Uganda.

"The AidData summer fellows programme facilitates an invaluable knowledge transfer," Moses Karatunga, a spokesman for TI Uganda, tells SciDev.Net. "I know that we could learn a great deal more, so perhaps a more solidified multi-year partnership would be beneficial to help us maintain and expand this capacity."

In Nepal, fellows visiting Kathmandu University are expanding on the previous year's work helping researchers and students use geocoded information to advance research on the effectiveness of development aid.

Sara Rock, a recent William & Mary graduate, visited Kathmandu University last summer as an AidData fellow. Armed with national-level data on aid money flows, Rock and university team members sought to supplement this with locally crowdsourced information on various aid projects. Rock says that during this work she noticed that some projects had fallen into disrepair or were even abandoned.

The work that summer was in the pilot stage, but Rock said the experience inspired the university to create a geographic information systems course for master's students.

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