Access to data in the sphere of international aid can empower useful, reactive change in the short term and in emergency situations such as natural disasters. But more must be done if we’re to see its potential positive impact realised in longer term problems, large-scale governmental issues, and in regimes where censorship and human rights abuses are commonplace.
So said a group of experts at an event convened last night by Guardian Media Network and Google to debate data, censorship, foreign aid and international development.
Guardian data store editor, Simon Rogers, was joined by Labour MP Douglas Alexander, research and monitoring manager of Publish What You Fund, Rachel Rank, and director of policy for the Institute for Human Rights and Business, Salil Tripathi, director of Oxford Martin School and former vice president of the World Bank, Ian Goldin, was beamed into proceedings via Skype.
Douglas Alexander drew on his previous experiences as Secretary of State for International Development to highlight the double-edged sword of the data age. Whilst the “power and utility of social media” can enable massive social and political reform - such as in the uprisings of the Arab Spring - technology can also be a tool of suppression. Alexander spoke of the “growing evidence” that certain regimes abuse data surveillance technologies to monitor and disrupt their opponents.
Effectively, Alexander argued, the benefit of data and technology is intrinsically linked to the values of the states that stand behind them. In his own words, “you don’t have a set of values online, and a [different] set of values offline”. Digital is simply a channel through which the existing values of a state, good or bad, can be enacted.
Ian Goldin warned against the dangers of short-termism when considering data in conjunction with international aid. “Half of Africa doesn’t have basic data on education, health or transport”, he said. In such circumstances, access to data is critical to positive change. However, “we shouldn’t allow data to drive aid,” he says - such an approach can lead to temporary fixes. Real change in areas that make a long-term difference, such as justice reform, can “take ages to manifest in data”.
That said, there are instances where short-term thinking is needed. Goldin discussed the Haitian earthquake disaster of 2010 where basic data, collected from mobile phones, helped aid workers to prioritise access to clean water for survivors.
Rachel Rank’s organisation, Publish What You Fund, campaigns for greater transparency and access to data related to aid with the aim of increasing aid effectiveness. Through the work of its team Publish What You Fund has launched the Aid Transparency Index which rates the transparency of certain donors. The results, as you might expect, are mixed. According to Rank, in the UK the Department for International Development does well, whilst the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence lag behind.
Access to this data is significant to a range of different stakeholders, and important for a number of different reasons. Taxpayers have a legitimate right to understand where their money is spent overseas, and recipients have the same right to understand where aid is being spent in their own country.
What’s more, access to data on international aid helps government departments, NGO’s and private donors to make better decisions about where to invest much needed funds.
Rank admitted that “league tables and ranking are a crude tool in many ways.” However, “donors do sit up and take notice of indexing” and can often be pressured into improving their practises when it comes to data transparency.
Salil Tripathi posed the question: “could countries that conceal information be sanctioned?”
He argued that mass internet access is key to a number of freedoms - of information, association, safety and economy. As such, censorship and restricted access has wide-ranging impact that goes beyond the immediate vicinity of a given conflict, political argument or state secret. What’s more, censorship tends to belie worse human rights abuses in many cases.
Tripathi asked how states should be punished when they use digital technologies to censor or abuse their power, especially given the now widely accepted wisdom that “sanctions are a blunt instrument.” The answer, as he sees it, is to prevent the sale and use of such technologies where they are used for ill.