Following the money: preliminary remarks on IATI Traceability

[Summary: Exploring the social and technical dynamics of aid traceability: let’s learn what we can from distributed ledgers, without thinking that all the solutions are to be found in the blockchain.]

My colleagues at Open Data Services are working at the moment on a project for UN Habitat around traceability of aid flows. With an increasing number of organisations publishing data using the International Aid Transparency Initiative data standard, and increasing amounts of government contracting and spending data available online, the theory is that it should be possible to track funding flows.

In this blog post I’ll try and think aloud about some of the opportunities and challenges for traceability.

Why follow funds?

I can envisage a number of hypothetical use cases traceability of aid.

Firstly, donors want to be able to understand where their money has gone. This is important for at least three reasons:

  1. Effectiveness & impact: knowing which projects and programmes have been the most effective;
  2. Understanding and communication: being able to see more information about the projects funded, and to present information on projects and their impacts to the public to build support for development;
  3. Addressing fraud and corruption: identifying leakage and mis-use of funds.

Traceability is important because the relationship between donor and delivery is often indirect. A grant may pass through a number of intermediary organisations before it reaches the ultimately beneficiaries. For example, a country donor may fund a multi-lateral fund, which in turn commissions an international organisation to deliver a programme, and they in turn contract with country partners, who in turn buy in provision from local providers.

Secondly, communities where projects are funded, or where funds should have been receieved, may want to trace funding upwards: understanding the actors and policy agendas affecting their communities, and identifying when funds they are entitled to have not arrived (see the investigative work of Follow The Money Nigeria for a good example of this latter use case).

Short-circuiting social systems

It is important to consider the ways in which work on the traceability of funds potentially bypasses, ‘routes around’ or disrupts* (*choose your own framing) existing funding and reporting relationships – allowing donors or communities to reach beyond intermediaries to exert such authority and power over outcomes as they can exercise.

Take the example given above. We can represent the funding flows in a diagram as below:


But there are more than one-way-flows going on here. Most of the parties involved will have some sort of reporting responsibility to those giving them funds, and so we also have a report


By the time reporting gets to the donor, it is unlikely to include much detail on the work of the local partners or providers (indeed, the multilateral, for example, may not report specifically on this project, just on the development co-operation in general). The INGO may even have very limited information about what happens just a few steps down the chain on the ground, having to trust intermediary reports.

In cases where there isn’t complete trust in this network of reporting, and clear mechanisms to ensure each party is excercising it’s responsibility to ensure the most effective, and corruption-free, use of resources by the next party down, the case for being able to see through this chain, tracing funds and having direct ability to assess impacts and risks is clearly desirable.

Yet – it also needs to be approached carefully. Each of the relationships in this funding chain is about more than just passing on some clearly defined packet of money. Each party may bring specific contextual knowledge, skills and experience. Enabling those at the top of a funding chain to leap over intermediaries doesn’t inevitably having a positive impact: particularly given what the history of development co-operative has to teach about how power dynamics and the imposition of top-down solutions can lead to substantial harms.

None of this is a case against traceability – but it is a call for consideration of the social dynamics of traceability infrastructures – and considering of how to ensure contextual knowledge is kept accessible when it becomes possible to traverse the links of a funding chain.

The co-ordination challenge of traceability

Right now, the IATI data standard has support for traceability at the project and transaction level.

  • At the project level the related-activity field can be used to indicate parent, child and co-funded activities.
  • At the transaction level, data on incoming funds can specify the activity-id used by the upstream organisation to identify the project the funds come from, and data on outgoing funds can specify the activity-id used by the downstream organisation.

This supports both upwards and downwards linking (e.g. a funder can publish the identified of the funded project, or a receipient can publish the identifier of the donor project that is providing funds), but is based on explicit co-ordination and the capture of additional data.

As a distributed approach to the publication of open data, there are no consistency checks in IATI to ensure that providers and recipients agree on identifiers, and often there can be practical challenges to capture this data, not least that:

  • A) Many of the accounting systems in which transaction data is captured have no fields for upstream or downstream project identifier, nor any way of conceptually linking transactions to these externally defined projects;
  • B) Some parties in the funding chain may not publish IATI data, or may do so in forms that do not support traceability, breaking the chain;
  • C) The identifier of a downstream project may not be created at the time an upstream project assigns funds – exchanging identifiers can create a substantial administrative burden;

At the last IATI TAG meeting in Ottawa, this led to some discussion of other technologies that might be explored to address issues of traceability.

Technical utopias and practical traceability

Let’s start with a number of assorted observations:

  • UPS can track a package right around the world, giving me regular updates on where it is. The package has a barcode on, and is being transferred by a single company.
  • I can make a faster-payments bank transfer in the UK with a reference number that appears in both my bank statements, and the receipients statements, travelling between banks in seconds. Banks leverage their trust, and use centralised third-party providers as part of data exchange and reconciling funding transfers.
  • When making some international transfers, the money has effectively disappeared from view for quite a while, with lots of time spent on the phone to sender, recipient and intermediary banks to track down the funds. Trust, digital systems and reconciliation services function less well across international borders.
  • Transactions on the BitCoin Blockchain are, to some extent, traceable. BitCoin is a distributed system. (Given any BitCoin ‘address’ it’s possible to go back into the public ledger and see which addresses have transferred an amount of bitcoins there, and to follow the chain onwards. If you can match an address to an identity, the currency, far from being anonymous, is fairly transparent*. This is the reason for BitCoin mixer services, designed to remove the trackability of coins.)
  • There are reported experiments with using BlockChain technologies in a range of different settings, incuding for land registries.
  • There’s a lot of investment going into FinTech right now – exploring ways to update financial services

All of this can lead to some excitement about the potential of new technologies to render funding flows traceable. If we can trace parcels and BitCoins, the argument goes, why can’t we have traceability of public funds and development assistance?

Although I think such an argument falls down in a number of key areas (which I’ll get to in a moment), it does point towards a key component missing from the current aid transparency landscape – in the form of a shared ledger.

One of the reasons IATI is based on a distributed data publishing model, without any internal consistency checks between publishers, is prior experience in the sector of submitting data to centralised aid databases. However, peer-to-peer and block-chain like technologies now offer a way to separate out co-ordination and the creation of consensus on the state of the world, from the centralisation of data in a single database.

It is at least theoretically possible to imagine a world in which the data a government publishes about it’s transactions is only considered part of the story, and in which the recipient needs to confirm receipt in a public ledger to complete the transactional record. Transactions ultimately have two parts (sending and receipt), and open (distributed) ledger systems could offer the ability to layer an auditable record on top of the actual transfer of funds.

However (as I said, there are some serious limitations here), such a system is only an account giving of the funding flows, not the flows themself (unlike BitCoin) which still leaves space for corruption through maintaining false information in the ledger. Although trusted financial intermediaries (banks and others) could be brought into the picture, as others responsible for confirming transactions, it’s hard to envisage how adoption of such a system could be brought about over the short and medium term (particularly globally). Secondly, although transactions between organisations might be made more visible and traceable in this way, the transactions inside an organisation remain opaque. Working out which funds relate to which internal and external projects is still a matter of the internal businesses processes in organisations involved in the aid delivery chain.

There may be other traceability systems we should be exploring as inspirations for aid and public money traceable. What my brief look at BitCoin leads me to reflect on is potential role over the short-term of reconciliation services that can, at the very least, report on the extent to which different IATI publisers are mutually confirming each others information. Over the long-term, a move towards more real-time transparency infrastructures, rather than periodic data publication, might open up new opportunities – although with all sorts of associated challenges.

Ultimately – creating traceable aid still requires labour to generate shared conceptual understandings of how particular transactions and projects relate.

How much is enough?

Let’s loop back round. In this post (as in many of the conversations I’ve had about traceable), we started with some use cases for traceability; we saw some of the challenges; we got briefly excited about what new technologies could do to provide traceability; we saw the opportunities, but also the many limitations. Where do we end up then?

I think important is to loop back to our use cases, and to consider how technology can help but not completely solve, the problems set out. Knowing which provider organisations might have been funded through a particular donors money could be enough to help them target investigations in cases of fraud. Or knowing all the funders who have a stake in projects in a particular country, sector and locality can be enough for communities on the ground to do further research to identify the funders they need to talk to.

Rather than searching after a traceability data panopticon, can we focus traceability-enabling practices on breaking down the barriers to specific investigatory processes?

Ultimately, in the IATI case, getting traceability to work at the project level alone could be a big boost. But doing this will require a lot of social coordination, as much as technical innovation. As we think about tools for traceability, thinking about tools that support this social process may be an important area to focus on.

Where next

Steven Flower and the rest of the Open Data Services team will be working on coming weeks on a deeper investigation of traceability issues – with the goal of producing a report and toolkit later this year. They’ve already been digging into IATI data to look for the links that exist so far and building on past work testing the concept of traceability against real data.

Drop in comments below, or drop Steven a line, if you have ideas to share.

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