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Foreign Aid Narrative, Facts & Semantic Confusion


March 26, 2010

AidData, World Food Programme, Gordon Brown, International Aid Transparency Initiative, Black Swans and visiting the UK

by Doug Hadden, VP Products

Insight is often achieved when outside comfort zones. As it was during the IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) Technical Advisory Group meeting and AidData conference in Oxford earlier this week. Semantic confusion because a constant theme of my many tweets.

The AidData portal launched on Tuesday is the most comprehensive single source for aid information available. It’s a remarkable achievement. Yet, there remains missing data and category confusion. Many academic papers were presented that leveraged this more complete information source. But every result was questioned: What is a project/activity?  How can duplicate information be eliminated? What is the quality of data? Has there been greenwashing?

Narrative and Transparency

Newsweek coincidently published a story called Food for Naught claiming that “a great deal of food distributed by the World Food Programme … is not going where it’s supposed to.”  Problems in four countries were mentioned.  Out of more than 80 countries. To add to this coincidence, I was reading Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb. Taleb suggests that “the journalistic prevarications of contemporary narrative”  is very misleading.  The Newsweek “damning portrait of the World Food Programme’s operations” may not be a portrait at all, rather a misleading snapshot. It is not a semantic fractal that represents the whole.

That’s where full transparency comes in. Corruption affecting the WFP may be limited to less than 10% of recipient countries. It could represent less than 1% of WFP aid. In fact, the WFP could be one of the best donors in controlling corruption. If the data was published.

The transparency paradox: opaque organizations face unsubstantiated criticism. Transparent organizations leverage civil society to improve results.

Meaning and Transparency

Raw data leads to misunderstanding among non-experts. At least, that’s the criticism from organizations looked at transparency. The data will be misunderstood and the public will make false conclusions. Why make false conclusions the sole purview of the press and academics? The information in AidData is subject to misunderstanding among experts. Donors do not code consistently – across years, among donors. Semantic confusion pervades. Then, the add to the coincidences, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a £30 Million investment in Semantic Web.

IATI aims to provide the semantic understanding to made aid projects more universally understood. Comparable. Provide real analytical insight to improve aid. The world can succumb to the narrative belief that aid does not and cannot work – that is is “dead aid.” Or, we can look at what works and improve what doesn’t. Through meaning and transparency.

What’s the lesson for the World Food Programme?

Be more transparent and participate in IATI or suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous/outraged media.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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