• Written by Peter van der Linde
    9 February 2011

On the morning of December 2nd 2010, crowds gathered in the central square in The Hague to protest against cuts to the Dutch foreign aid budget. It was a beautiful morning with an amazing sky that saw vast cranes and half-built towers loom behind a layer of fog above the grand old city square, built with the proceeds of centuries of global trade.

The sky above the Plein (Central Square) “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” aid demonstration. Den Haag, Netherlands. By Mark Tiele Westra, 2 December 2010.

For some time we’ve spent a relatively high percentage of GDP on aid (0.8%) compared to other countries and it’s been politically popular. Treating land as shared infrastructure that can be harnessed to support a population and produce something that can be traded is in my roots and those of most Dutch people. And as a country we’ve always understood that our wealth depends on the prosperity of others, and that we can actively foster such wealth.

However, the Dutch state is now reducing development aid, hence the protests. Yet while something feels wrong about cutting foreign development budgets, the aid networks that share the money have struggled to become more transparent and accountable and the financially-squeezed public is losing patience. Turning taxpayer’s cash into clear improvements in people’s living conditions in the poorest parts of the world is a complex system that involves a vast network of organisations and can easily become bureaucratic and frustrating for everyone. Right now it’s difficult to see where money goes, without elaborate (and expensive) packaging of stories back to the public and it’s hard to secure funds without jumping through admin-intensive hoops.

Akvo is working to help break the deadlock in Dutch aid spending by making it much easier to bring projects online in a way that everyone can see, understand and contribute to. Our system is set to help bring at least €100 million of NGO projects onto the web as we embark on the first months of two new MFS2 consortia. Several of the consortia members are also intrigued by the possibilities to go beyond that – maybe bringing entire aid portfolios online. Our system was designed from the beginning to scale rapidly, so it’s something we’re ready to support.

There’s another incentive in all this, too, and it’s called International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). IATI is the emerging standard for international development aid and it’s intended to make it much easier to see where all the money goes globally. Many governments around the world are committed to IATI compliance and right now are starting to publish tables of spending data, such as these just out in the UK from DFID.

Bringing the Dutch water and sanitation portfolio online
A highlight of last month for me is that we have been asked to help bring the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ complete water and sanitation portfolio online before June, increasing transparency and achieving IATI compliance. The Foreign Affairs team wants to step a little further forward than most governments which are still fixated on raw data, to publish programme spend in ways that are easy to navigate and understand, that feature maps showing what is spent where and in a manner where each of the organisations involved can easily add updates and provide more context. It’s an aspect of our tools that was highlighted recently by AidInfo, one of the leading proponents for open aid data.

With the other deals we have in place this means we are running Akvo as a paid-for service for multiple partners, and are able to invest in a lean, stable development cycle for our open source software platform. We’re among the first service providers to be in this position, something that has been noted in the progressive networks focused on next-generation government delivery – for example, Thomas sets out how Akvo breaks the mould on the highly-regarded Futuregov blog here.

The first stage of IATI compliance in Akvo focuses on project entry. Most of our partners still prefer to fill in standalone forms as PDF documents, rather than enter data directly online. So we’re adapting our database and these forms so the PDFs effectively become a way for partners to load projects into Akvo with IATI-compliant data fields that then appear online as Akvo project pages, featuring partner details, funding tools, maps, widgets and search features.

Akvo’s Mark Westra spent today comparing data fields in the Akvo project format against the IATI fields. The aim is to make Akvo a tool to help bring projects online that are IATI compliant and to make them more engaging and interactive than the tables that many are publishing in the first wave of compliance.

I’m especially grateful to everyone involved with IATI who has encouraged and supported us to align our system with the new standard. We heard today through Twitter that the IATI standard was formally agreed in Paris earlier. That’s really cool. We’ll keep you updated along the way, as this work progresses.

Peter van der Linde is a co-founder and partner director at Akvo.