Policymakers diverting funds earmarked for long-term investments to pay for immediate political fire-fighting, then using accounting technicalities to conceal their budgetary sleight of hand. NGOs calling attention to the high-stakes shell game, only to see the government practices worsen the next year. This all sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it?
What’s surprising is where it’s happening: in the very countries that have been the standard-bearers of good governance, transparency, and adherence to a long-term vision of fairness in social and economic development around the world.
In Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and other European countries, government funding for international aid—known as official development assistance—is increasingly being reassigned to cover the expenses of receiving and resettling refugees within the donor countries’ borders. But thanks to a specific set of international reporting rules, the totals for aid spending remain high—so high, in fact, that those countries are likely to retain their ranking atop the Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development index.
The shift in funding is dramatic. In 2016, Denmark intends to spend one-third of its total aid budget—some $600 million—to cover refugee support within its own borders. Sweden and Norway are making even more drastic reallocations.
These are countries that have been stalwart supporters of long-term development investments in many countries in Africa and Asia. Their funding has permitted both the public sector and non-governmental organizations to improve education, provide vital health services, protect the rights of women and girls, and expand the infrastructure that allows farmers to get products to market and businesses to create jobs for young people. They have been among the most active advocates for generous, predictable, transparent aid flows, often chastising the United States for failing to adopt effective practices such as participation in sector-wide pooled funding aligned with the priorities of recipient governments. They were also influential in promoting ambitious international goal-setting, codified in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by UN member states just a few months ago.
The consequences of these budget cuts are profound. Many of the non-governmental organizations we support have learned recently that promised funding will be cut by 30% or more, leaving them unable to finish projects and, in some cases, threatening the viability of the organizations themselves. NGOs have few, if any, alternative sources to draw on. (Although our own funding to them remains steady, we are unable to fill in this sudden gap.) Governments, too, are reeling from cuts in programs that have long been dependent on donor aid. The most likely public sector response will be to seek greater support from other sources, and particularly from China.
But this is more than a story about changing priorities in a stressed-out world; it’s a story about transparency. European donor countries are able to shift resources to needs within their own borders while appearing to be as generous as they have always been for one simple reason: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) permits “in-donor refugee costs”—expenditures related to receiving and resettling refugees during the first 12 months—to be included in the reported totals of official development assistance. While this has been allowed informally since the early 1980s, and formally since a 1988 Statistical Reporting Directive from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (available in this 2013 report), the practice has gained in popularity in the past couple of years. As the challenge of refugees has grown, governments in Northern Europe have applied the reporting rule with more vigor and less rigor. They have shifted large shares of their aid budgets, including to expenses associated with resettlement past the 12-month mark. Several watchdog NGOs in Europe have tried to draw attention to this budget game, seeking to galvanize opposition to the use of aid resources for donor-country needs. To date, those efforts appear to have failed, in part because the overall “aid” numbers stay high and the pain is being felt far away.
Without question, the explosive increase in refugees from Syria and many other countries is putting a major strain on European countries, and the response demands that resources be mobilized. The money must be found somewhere. But drawing resources down from development assistance is short-sighted, sacrificing long-term benefits and the disrupting important work in progress. And exploiting OECD reporting rules hides the governments’ actions from their own people—taxpayers who, in the past, set the standard for global citizenship. They deserve better, and so do these European countries’ longtime partners in the developing world.
If you’ve been around the international development business long enough, you’ve probably heard someone ask, “So, what do we know about what works?” Maybe it’s a parliamentarian, a minister, or the Administrator of USAID. Maybe it’s a reporter. Or maybe it’s a newly arrived junior member of a project team, hoping her middle-aged colleagues—who clearly have all the answers—will rattle off a list of evidence-based interventions to improve health, teach kids, empower women, or reform the civil service.
The response depends on who’s doing the answering. “Old development hands,” the folks who have worked in dozens of countries on project after project, are likely to say we know a lot about what works, and success depends on community engagement (or gender-sensitive project design, or careful monitoring, or something else hard-won experience has convinced them is critical but too-often overlooked). Members of the research community will often say we know very little—maybe even nothing—because few interventions have been subject to rigorous evaluation, or the respondents haven’t had time to keep up on the literature. If the person answering happens to have done a systematic review of all the research on a particular topic, the response will be an exhaustive (and thoroughly exhausting) review of what works and what doesn’t. And the rest of us? Well, we’ll just shrug—or bluff.
That’s why I love the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation’s Evidence Gap Maps, elegant, colorful visualizations of what we know and what we have yet to discover. Based on searches for all relevant impact evaluations and systematic reviews on a given topic, the maps are a one-stop-evidence-shop for expert and curious non-expert alike. They make us smarter.
Take, for example, the question of what we know about how to improve teaching, pupil attendance, and learning outcomes in primary and secondary school. A pretty important question. The 3ie Evidence Gap Map displays on a single page how interventions like school meals, scholarships, cash transfers, teacher incentives and community monitoring affect each of these outcomes. For well-studied interventions, you can click through to curated impact evaluations and systematic reviews. For interventions that have rarely or never been evaluated, the white space tells the tale of a major evidence gap. Like all the Gap Maps, the one on education captures far more research than most people have time or energy to sift through.
Just as geographic maps chart territory without telling you precisely where to go, the Evidence Gap Maps themselves don’t offer recommendations for policy or practice. But they tell us what studies are most relevant to our specific question and context, and are an invaluable tool to help those in the research community (and their funders) set priorities.
It is precisely to help set research priorities that we’ve started working with 3ie on an Evidence Gap Map on adolescent reproductive health programs and outcomes. We’re at the start of the process, which entails precisely defining what we mean by “adolescent” and “reproductive health programs,” and what outcomes—from youth empowerment to pregnancy prevention—we and other funders might want to learn most about. The next few months will be filled with extensive literature searches, and then sorting, synthesizing, and summarizing.
My colleagues and I are eager to see the result, because we’ll be able to hone in on the questions that have been investigated the least, which in turn will help us focus our (always limited) research dollars. Best of all, we won’t have to resort to outdated experience or whatever research findings we happen to remember when someone asks, “So, what do we know about what works?”
If I had to come up with one word to describe what I want to see in a grantee organization, it’s this: courage.
Courage comes in many forms. We see it most clearly in the organizations we support to ensure that women around the world have access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion. These organizations are made up of people who do their work under extraordinarily trying conditions. Overseas, they must stretch scarce resources and find creative ways to reach women who themselves are disempowered. In the United States, they face relentless attempts to throw up legal and regulatory barriers to their work. And all too often, they also confront threats to their personal safety and security. Unlike most of us, they need courage just to keep showing up for work every day.
Grantee organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America also demonstrate courage in their commitment to shining a light on government policies and practices. They risk intimidation, illegitimate restrictions on their actions, and even harsh reprisals from those who fear or resent their work on behalf of their fellow citizens. After an era of liberalization, we now see governments around the world imposing more and more limits on civil society. While often cloaked in the language of “national security” or fraud prevention, government actions are closing the space for civil society, and mission-driven organizations may be unable to maintain their funding, find offices to rent, or hold public meetings. When your own government challenges your organization’s right to exist, it takes real courage to stick with it.
Finally—and to be clear, this is courage of a far less dramatic kind—some of the organizations we support in Washington are willing to speak truth to power, even at the risk of becoming unpopular within a policy community that prizes access. Criticizing a sitting administration, particularly one that is “friendly” toward the issues you care about, can affect your standing in subtle but important ways. It takes a kind of courage to be the skunk at the garden party.
So what can we do to support courageous organizations and the people within them? The obvious answer is that we can put them at the top of our priority list for grants. And we do. Money can’t protect organizations from the many threats they face, or keep backbones stiff in the face of attacks. But it can help take one challenge off the table for them, particularly when our support comes with the reassurance that it is offered not in spite of the difficulties they face but because of them.
As people around here headed out the door for a week of vacation filled with family, friends, and yes, Christmas presents, I asked a few of my colleagues in the Global Development and Population Program what gifts they’d already gotten this year from our grantees. Puzzled, one colleague gently reminded me that our employee handbook specifically proscribes accepting gifts from people whose work we support. So I explained: “No, not material gifts. I mean what gifts of knowledge or joy or time did you get?”
Here are some of their responses:
“Several of my grantees have provided very frank and honest assessments of challenges they’re facing in their work. That candor is a gift. They’re not trying to sell us anything—they’re treating us as trusted partners. It allow us to know what’s going on and to help if we can. That’s a gift, too.”
“I’m grateful for the gift of something-better-than-I-ever-imagined from the team that put together the Data Impacts cases. I shared the seed of an idea with amazing people, and they grew it into something fabulous.”
“I got the gift of seeing how our funding benefits real people—through the storytelling done by Marie Stopes in their great video series we supported, and through the Images of Empowerment project, which generated hundreds of beautiful photos that anyone can use for free.”
“One prospective grantee gave me the gift of breaking up with me before I had to break up with them. The grant was getting complicated and I was starting to try to problem-solve and ask them to change elements of the proposal. But it looked like it was going to fall through. Before I had a chance to say ‘no,’ they emailed to tell me they decided not to pursue the grant. That was a gift.”
“Although we’re concluding our funding for the Population and Poverty Research Network, some of the young researchers who had been funded under that initiative have volunteered to self-organize future conferences on a smaller scale to continue the scholarly exchange on population and development research. That’s a wonderful gift—a testament to the value of the PopPov network, and it shows that we did indeed help to revitalize the field.”
“The inaugural steering committee meeting for the People’s Action for Learning Network was a true gift. The spirit of collaboration, open sharing of success and failure, and incredible warmth across the network is so special.”
“We all got the gift of feedback from the Grantee Perception Survey.”
That’s only a partial list, of course. We are often (and repeatedly) amazed at the creativity and commitment of the people whose work we support. We learn new things and feel buoyed by the spirit of genuine partnership they bring to each conversation. We are indeed grateful for the many gifts our grantees give us every day.
For more than a decade, the Hewlett Foundation has supported organizations working on a very big worldwide challenge: how to increase people’s ability to understand where their governments get money, how that money is spent, and whether commitments for delivering health care, education and other public services are being fulfilled. While this is not an effort to export American-style democracy, it is based on the notion that, empowered with information, citizens can encourage politicians, public officials and other power-brokers to be accountable; greater accountability will translate into better government services; and better services, in turn, will improve health and well-being.
Our portfolio of grants in the field of “transparency and accountability” is wide-ranging. It includes coalitions of civil society organizations pressing their national governments to publish information about how much they receive for access to oil, gas and mineral resources. And it includes groups getting the word out to citizens that they have a right to ask local public officials to fix broken wells and poorly performing schools. Today, we’re sharing our updated strategy, which builds on the past and aims to make our transparency efforts more effective in leading to government accountability.
That work has paid off. Compared with just a decade ago, far more information about the government revenue sources, public budgets and expenditures is now routinely available. Beyond this “new normal” of fiscal transparency, civil society is pressing for – and sometimes achieving – greater citizen participation. In some cases, this takes the form of involvement in participatory budgeting. In others, it means that citizens themselves are collecting information about the quality of government services in their communities, and are providing feedback to responsible officials.
But for all the progress, we have to face a basic fact: greater transparency in most countries has not triggered many citizens to use the newly available information. Without citizens acting on this information to hold their leaders accountable, the problems of poor quality government services persist.
So, ten years in, we’ve taken a fresh look. We’ve spent the past year or so digging into what’s resulted from our grantmaking, consulting with experts in the field of transparency and accountability, and reflecting on our own strengths and limitations. The result? A revised strategy to advance transparency, participation and accountability that reaffirms our commitment to the field, while recognizing and bolstering the critical role of citizen participation.
The first challenge is improving the enabling environment. This means that we will continue to work with organizations to create and reinforce norms and standards that enable greater transparency and participation. We have a lot of experience in this area, and remain committed to the promotion of global norms—as well as related efforts at the regional level—that create the conditions for citizens to have access to more and better information so they know what to expect from their governments. The existence of global norms encourages disclosure of information about government activities, and particularly public expenditures. While most grants in this category will involve consolidating gains already made, we expect also to explore some new frontiers. For instance, because of the growing importance of domestic finance, we expect to support work that reveals the magnitude and sources of illicit outflow of funds from developing countries, and that increases transparency around tax revenues and public procurement.
The other aspect of the enabling environment that we are well positioned to work on is ensuring that information about resources and service quality is collected and can be used (and in some cases generated) by citizens. We continue to believe that access to information is a fundamental enabler for accountability, but we know that just releasing information is not enough. We’ll expect that transparency-related efforts will push harder to achieve citizen participation by considering questions of who will use the information and how. Thus, we’ll seek more opportunities to make information relevant and accessible to citizens. In some cases, this means supporting the collection of information by citizens themselves, and we are particularly enthusiastic about the potential of citizen-led learning assessments—which were taken up by nine countries with our Quality Education in Developing Countries initiative—to reveal shortcomings in the quality of basic education.
The second challenge represents newer territory for us, but we see it as crucially important. This is strengthening the ability of citizens to speak and act around service delivery challenges, while building channels that permit citizens to engage with all levels of government.
In our grantmaking, we expect to work with citizen groups and coalitions of civil society organizations that are working collectively and in a sustained way around using accountability mechanisms to tackle service delivery gaps and challenges. While we’re not able to provide support directly to small, local citizen groups, we will look for opportunities to support regional and national organizations with strong connections to and legitimacy among local groups. We will pay special attention to ensuring that partnerships we foster between smaller and larger organizations are open, productive and based on mutual respect, trust, and learning.
We will also work to identify, construct, and learn how to use conduits for citizens to interact with and provide feedback to public sector institutions. We expect that some organizations we’ll support will press to strengthen formal institutions, such as those responsible for requests for information or for overseeing audits. Other grantees may pursue more informal routes to constructive citizen-government engagement.
Throughout our grantmaking, a primary aim is to contribute knowledge to a dynamic field. Much of that learning will be undertaken by grantees themselves, and we’ll look forward to having strong relationships with organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to learning, adapting and sharing what they learn with others. We will also make specific investments in research, evaluation, and learning networks, with an emphasis on building or leveraging strong connections between academic and practitioner communities.
Overall, our new strategy is more a story of continuity than change. We hope our grantmaking will continue to contribute to the larger conversation in the transparency and accountability field, as well as progress toward strengthening the accountability relationship between governments and their citizens to improve the delivery of quality public services.
We welcome comments on the new strategy. Share your thoughts below, or email us at GDandP@hewlett.org.
One of the most straightforward transactions in the foundation world is the no-cost extension. In our program at the Hewlett Foundation, at least, our practice has been to approve them routinely. A grantee simply writes to say that work is progressing more slowly than expected and that they wish to have the end-date for the project pushed out a few months (or longer) with no change in the overall budget. We say yes, and change the dates in our grant file so that we know when to expect the final report. This is so easy—a few keystrokes, really—that it’s natural to think there is no negative consequence, no reason to question, no cost.
But that’s wrong.
The cost of no-cost extensions is, in fact, quite high. If the Foundation is doing its work correctly, we should be supporting work that is relevant, high-impact, and urgent. It should matter—a lot—if a study is published this year or two years from now, if a policy working group concludes its work before or after the next regional summit. We should be supporting work that is going to change lives for the better—with no time to waste. It should matter to us, and it should matter even more to the researchers and policy advocates who are doing the work. If the delay doesn’t matter, then I think we have some pretty important questions to ask about why not.
We should never refuse the occasional, well-justified request for a no-cost extension, of course. A longer-than-usual rainy season can delay data collection, and when a crucial team member quits unexpectedly, the clock has to stop until a replacement can be found. Life happens. But we’ve had lots of grantees who routinely ask for and seem to depend on no-cost extensions—yes, my academic friends, I’m looking at you (although not just at you). No-questions-asked no-cost extensions enable procrastination and poor project management, and send the signal that later is as good as sooner. That’s simply not true, and its a habit we want to break.
In the Global Development and Population Program, some grant awards now come with the warning that we will not approve no-cost extensions, and that if the funds are not expended by the scheduled end of the project, they will have to be returned to the Foundation for other uses. We’ve heard some grumbling, and in a couple of cases we’ve ended up getting checks back from prestigious universities. But, all in all, the reactions have been more positive than negative, because our message has been correctly interpreted: your work matters a lot, to us and to the world. So get it done and make a difference, today. Isn’t that what we should all want to hear?
In a world where both resources for policy research and the attention spans to take it in are finite—that is, in the real world—less can definitely be more. Less research can mean that there’s more money and time for the activities other than data collection, analysis, and synthesis—more time and money, that is, for the activities that can make the difference between the proverbial “report on a shelf” and the study that informs better policy decisions in a meaningful way. Less sophistication can mean more understanding: Asking simple, straightforward questions and using descriptive data can provide just the type of information that decision makers understand and value. Less verbiage can mean more reading: writing shorter documents focused on questions the intended audience actually wants the answers to can dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be read.
Within the Global Development and Population Program, we support economists and other social scientists at universities and think tanks who are pursuing important research questions: Which economic growth path will disproportionately benefit the poor, women, and those in the informal economy? What types of health service delivery can most effectively reach young people with vital reproductive health care? How can countries avoid the “resource curse” to obtain broad benefits from extractive industries? As the research is designed and conducted, whether the studies are one-country case studies, multi-country data analysis, or experimental impact evaluations, the researchers make thousands of decisions about the scope, methods, and means of communicating results. In each grant proposal, and in our ongoing relationships with researchers, we try to see whether those decisions are made with an eye toward getting the great possible value out of the investment in research.
The tradeoff we see most often is between doing more research or spending more time on engagement with journalists, advocates, policymakers, and others who might interpret and use the findings. In general, researchers maximize budgets and schedules for the research, and shortchange the activities that help ensure that their research is relevant to current policy debates, shared in the many venues and formats that are needed to achieve real impact, beyond any research publication. As funders, we frequently ask how members of the policy community will be engaged from the outset and how the work will be disseminated in a way and at a time that corresponds to the intended audiences’ needs. Too often, the answers are vague, with little evidence that the proposed budget could accommodate the significant amounts of labor, travel, coffee-and-sandwiches, and other quotidian, essential costs for policy outreach.
We also often see researchers reaching to explore ever more nuanced policy questions and applying sophisticated econometric and other abstruse techniques. It’s impressive, and may be just the ticket to get the resulting paper into a prestigious journal (or at least into a years-long cycle of revising-and-resubmitting). But more often than not the analyses that serve policy audiences are those that simply and compellingly bring to light facts about the conditions of people’s lives, the quality of public services, and the potential costs or savings from a particular government program. That is, the studies that present descriptive and basic analytic results in straightforward ways that connect to specific policy domains and decisions—the kind that a technocrat in the Ministry of Health, Education, Planning, or Finance might need to come up with a better program design and stronger budget request.
The final way that less can be more is in the presentation of findings. For their academic and think tank peers, policy researchers feel compelled to “show their work,” sharing all the details of study design, conceptual framework, analytic approach and—where they sometimes lose even me—the multiple specifications of the multivariate models they tried before landing on the “right” one. This adds up to far too much information for policy audiences, who are likely to tune out at the first mention of “sample size” and “statistical power.” What most people in the advocacy and policy community want to know is: Why is this important? What did you find? How does this fit into what we know from other sources (i.e., does this challenge or confirm conventional wisdom)? And, crucially, so what? What should we do differently now that we have these results? Researchers who can answer those questions succinctly and precisely are able to attract and sustain attention—and win our admiration for their communication skills.
As I’ve written before, we believe in the power of evidence to improve people’s lives, and we commit millions of dollars to specific studies and to policy research institutions. We want those dollars, in aggregate, to have the greatest impact they can—but that won’t happen until the researchers themselves do less to do more.
The Open Government Partnership is building a new way for citizens and the people who represent them to work together to solve real-world problems—and what I like best about it is that just about everyone’s who’s involved is simultaneously a believer and a skeptic. Their eyes are open and they’re learning as they go.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), which doesn’t get as much attention as many other international initiatives—or as much as it deserves—will hold its global summit next week in Mexico City. Launched in September 2011 by the presidents of the United States and Brazil, the OGP describes itself as “an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” Governments and civil society organizations in member countries—membership has grown from 8 countries at its founding to 66 today—work together to develop, and then implement and report on, joint action plans to increase public sector openness. This takes many forms, depending on the starting point and a particular country’s circumstances: in many countries, action plans include adopting and implementing high standards for fiscal transparency; in some, they focus on increasing the ability of citizens to participate in decision making about how governments allocate resources.
The OGP has three features that are core to how it seeks to nudge the world to a better place: First, it adheres to strict eligibility criteria for membership, such as the existence of an access to information law. In concept, the lure of joining a good governance club creates an incentive for greater transparency. Second, recognizing that transparency and participation are challenges around the world, OGP seeks to include and be relevant to all countries, not only those in the Global South. This leads to lots of mutual support and learning, and obviates the risk that the partnership will look like old-fashioned “we judge you / we fix you” donor-designed initiatives. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is one of the only vehicles for civil society and governments to negotiate, plan, and report on progress together, primarily within national borders but also at the international level. This creates the conditions for a collaborative, rather than solely adversarial, relationship between at least some civil society actors and representatives of the public sector. Conceived as a platform for national policy formulation and implementation, cities now are getting into the act. Leading municipal governments are developing their own action plans to solicit and embrace greater civic participation at the most local levels.
The Open Government Partnership is based on the idea that civil society and governments can, with the right incentives and processes in place, work together constructively to both accelerate openness and, ultimately, solve thorny governance challenges. This is appealing on paper, but not a simple concept to bring to life. Governments have vastly greater resources than civil society organizations, and can—if they wish—use the power of the state to restrict the ability of citizens to act collectively. Even when both parties act in good faith, the work requires new skills and tools. Civil society leaders and public officials have to figure out each other’s vocabulary, rhythm of work, and decision-making processes. They also have to develop mutual respect and trust, a willingness to not just say the word “partnership,” but practice it. Particularly for civil society organizations, this means a redefinition of tactics and measures of success—from argument to conversation, but never to capitulation.
Everyone involved understands that this is a big, bold experiment, based on a set of assumptions that may turn out to be right—or wrong. And they are observing as they participate, encouraging each other to share what they’re learning along the way.
Among the many civil society organizations whose engagement in the Open Government Partnership we and other foundations support, we see full and enthusiastic participation in this experiment. Those who are working with government are often acting in creative ways to further the OGP ideals—and, at the same time, are tracking what’s working and whether the process of collaboration is genuine or a sham. OGP participants on the civil society side are always on the alert for signs that their government partners are not acting in good faith. They worry about being co-opted, that the often time-consuming engagement in the OGP processes might be seen by some governments as a way to keep civil society distracted and busy so they won’t be able to draw attention to bad actors acting badly in the public sector. They scrutinize the implementation of action plans, highlighting instances when the words on paper aren’t turning into reality. In short: they trust, but verify. Again, this takes time and new skills and tactics, all in the service of giving this new model a try.
Will OGP meet its ambition of being a new model for solving governance problems around the world? Maybe. Will it add to what we know about whether and how civil society organizations can work with the public sector? Yes, definitely. It already is. And we, and our partners around the world, are eager to learn right along with them.
I usually sleep soundly, but there are nights when work worries keep me up. The number one cause of a restless night: wondering whether a grant we made with the best of intentions is, in fact, making a partner organization worse off than it would have been without it.
Funders can do harm with their generosity in three ways, which sometimes combine to toxic effect: dependence, distortion, and delaying the inevitable.
We foster unhealthy dependence when we provide grants that are large, relative to the size of an organization’s annual budget. Caution lights start flashing for me when grant size reaches 20 percent of the total, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. In cases where we are a large funder—and particularly when we are the single-largest funder—changes in our strategy or in the allocation of our grantmaking budget can wreak havoc on a grantee’s organizational health, leaving a resource hole that cannot be filled quickly, if at all. We try to mitigate those risks to grantees with lots of advance notice about a change in funding levels, but the damage to an unprepared organization—not to mention the stress on leadership and staff—can be substantial.
We distort organizational priorities when we offer resources for work that is not squarely aligned with an institution’s mission, and requires hiring new staff or otherwise extending the grantee into new commitments. This is an easy trap to fall into, for both parties. For us, it’s easier to work with known partners than to establish new relationships, and we may tell ourselves we’re encouraging the organizations to boldly pursue a promising new direction. For the grantee organization, taking on new work—even when it’s only a second cousin to their current concerns—permits them to maintain (and maybe even deepen) a relationship with a long-time funder. While sometimes this works out splendidly, and both we and the grantee make the most of connections between longstanding efforts and a bright shiny new initiative, in many cases the organization’s mission just gets fuzzier, its story harder to tell. And when the project is over, leaders—having compromised their principles—end up having to make unwelcome decisions about whether to sustain the new work or let it end, with all the consequences for both staff and institution that entails.
We delay the inevitable when we make grants to keep an organization financially viable—at least in the short run—when we know the prospects for long-term sustainability are slim. It’s incredibly painful when the withdrawal of our support sounds the death knell to a non-profit organization; I admit that more than once I have been persuaded to approve a grant because failing to do so would have meant that a once-valued partner would close its doors and good people would be without a job. But life support for a grantee is no favor at all in the end, either to that organization or to our shared mission. It is better to face the music, and—even for the staff—to find another place to dance.
Sure, in all these cases, it’s not just the foundation that is responsible for the damage. It is incumbent on the grantee’s leadership team to make sure they are not jeopardizing their organizational health. They have to continuously work on diversifying their funding base, ensure that their commitments are in line with their raison d'être, and have a clear-eyed view of their own institutional viability. But the funder-grantee relationship is inherently unequal, and I’m very much aware of the responsibility those of who are making the funding decisions bear—decisions that, in the end, determine how much money is available for rent, payroll, equipment, travel, and everything else that makes nonprofits’ work possible. Day in and day out, when we think about writing the checks, we absolutely, positively have to check our own practices, and make sure that first, we are doing no harm.
The Industrial Revolution. The Digital Revolution. The French Revolution. The American Revolution. Whether economic or technological in nature, social or political, they all have one thing in common: what came after was fundamentally different than what came before, and the changes wrought could not be ignored.
What about the Data Revolution? What kind of revolution will it be?
Will the Data Revolution, which will be heralded in alongside the agreement about the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, change the way we work? Will it change the way we think? And can it fundamentally alter the relationship between the powerless and the powerful? I’m hoping for all three.
In the long lead-up to the formal launch next week of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data—an institutional embodiment of the hoped-for Data Revolution—much of the focus has been on how innovations in data collection and analysis have the potential to accelerate progress toward key development outcomes, from reducing food waste to increasing immunization coverage to improving the energy efficiency of cities. (For a running summary of Data Revolution commentary, check out this terrific resource at Open Data Watch.) We’ve all drawn inspiration from real-world examples in which census data are linked to feeds from social media and satellite imaging to yield insights that are rich, granular, and instantaneous—and potentially invaluable for real-time planning and implementation of government programs. As several data impacts case studies have shown, better and more varied data sources and tools are already transforming how we all work, and the Global Partnership can help focus attention and resources on making those innovations work harder for development outcomes.
But realizing the full potential of the Data Revolution will require setting even more ambitious expectations, and taking greater risks. It will require confronting the link between our data and ourselves.
The way we collect, protect, and use information is a reflection of a society’s values. That means data-as-usual reinforces current patterns of inequality and marginalization; and it means progressive social change can be propelled and reinforced when the way we work with data is consistent with the better world we’re seeking.
Just think, for a moment, about gender. Assumptions about gender permeate data collection, from the now-contested presumption that gender is a binary variable to the many manifestations of gender roles that are embedded in standard household surveys. If a family includes a wife and a husband, the husband is listed as the “head of household.” Questionnaires that ask only about “primary occupation” often miss income-earning activities that women engage in, if the interviewees self-identify as “housewives,” as they often do in cultures where men are seen as producers and women as reproducers. Similarly, male respondents are rarely if ever asked about care-giving. Even data collection that is explicitly intended to understand gender-specific experience cannot break loose of social values: to measure violence against women, to take one example, those who are collecting and analyzing data have to confront questions about behavioral boundaries within intimate relationships. In most societies, the question of whether marital rape exists is far from settled, so how can information about that kind of violence be obtained if it’s not even conceived of as possible?
And data related to gender is certainly not the only type of information that implicitly perpetuates the status quo. Everything from the categories we use for race and ethnicity to the way we measure income and consumption to the geographic boundaries we use—“rural?” “urban?”—carry with them the assumptions and values of the society in which people create those survey questions and analyze those variables. That means those who want to challenge assumptions and shape social values have a huge responsibility and an equally large opportunity: We have to make sure that the work we do to improve and intensify the collection and use of data helps propel change, not stifle it.
Practically, what does this mean? First, it means embracing the interaction between the political and the technical, and challenging the view that data about people and our lives exists outside of social constructs. It means experimenting with new ways to conceptualize and capture information: using ethnographic methods to arrive at different ways of thinking about work and relationships, for instance, and inviting into the conversation people supposedly represented in the numbers. And it means fully taking advantage of data that are a byproduct of actions and transactions, rather than solely depending on data constructed and collected for the purpose of answering pre-set questions. Yes, here I’m talking about some parts of the big data universe, like social media feeds, data from remote sensing, and transactional information showing how people work, consume, and move. I’m sure those who think more deeply about these issues than I do can expand on (or challenge) this list, and I surely hope that happens as the Data Revolution unfolds.
At the Hewlett Foundation, we are pleased to be anchor partners within the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, working with remarkably committed and future-oriented individuals and organizations. At the very least, we expect this Partnership to be a leading force in helping apply more and better data to overcome development challenges. But even beyond that, we expect this Partnership to marshal the energy, resources, brainpower, and passion to revolutionize the way we think about the power of data itself.