April 12, 2012Doug Hadden
Doug Hadden, VP Products
If we could only harness the hot air coming from the foreign aid debate as a new renewable energy source. There’s a school of thought that aid is ineffective – as encapsulated (poorly) by Dambiso Moyo in Dead Aid, There is little agreement among experts. And, the pantheon of development experts, the House of Lords in the UK want to scrap the foreign aid target. (Stick that in your wig, so to speak.) Not to say that the aid debate doesn’t have moments of levity – as recently supplied by New York University professor William Easterly.
Narrative vs Data
The aid effectiveness debate thrives on narrative. Facts are used to support points of view or confirmation bias. Data is powerful. Data disrupts the “truthiness” of an argument .You only need to look at Hans Rosling’s gapminder.org to see the power of data in action. There have been huge strides to liberate data from documents thanks to Aid Data.
The data provides insight. Helps to determine what works and what doesn’t. But, the depth and breadth of aid and economic data is limited. But that’s all going to change.
Towards Big Data and Transparency
It’s rather ironic that so many politicians are prepared to abandon foreign aid just at the point of the aid data explosion. The effects of aid are difficult to measure (except at the micro level) because of factors like remittances, foreign direct investment, protective tariffs in developed countries, government spending, and governance. Thanks to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the opening of more public data – led by the World Bank, it seems that we’ll soon learn how to make aid effective (or definitive proof that aid is a waste of money.)
This is very much a “big data” problem:
- Structured and unstructured data including open data and documents
- Multiple data sources at different levels of information abstraction
- Complex semantics requiring taxonomies and perhaps linked data
- Multi-variate information (remittances, FDI etc.)
- Social networking information and activity streams
- Information-sensing mobile devices and crowdsourced information
- Geographic-based information
- Potential for petabytes of data
- Need for visualization and data exploration
Foreign aid is an easy target for politicians. Many want a level of certainty about aid effectiveness well beyond standard government programs. For example, the No Child Left Behind funding for 2012 is expected to be over $14B. That’s 1/3 of the entire 2013 State Department and USAID budget request which could be cut down to $38B by Congress. Is there the same scrutiny in developed countries for domestic programs as there is for foreign?