Where Is All the Aid Money for Nepal Going? Open Data Could Help Lift the Veil
When NPR and ProPublica revealed in June that $500 million was missing from the Red Cross earthquake funds for Haiti, it rang alarm bells across Nepal. In April, the Himalayan country was rocked by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake that claimed more than 8,500 lives, turned centuries-old UNESCO heritage site monuments to dust—and resulted in more than $3.9 billion of pledged foreign aid.
Nepal needs more than $6.8 billion—about one-third of the country’s annual GDP—in international aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction, according to the National Planning Committee’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment report. While money has started coming in, there is growing concern and skepticism over the reporting practices of international aid organizations, and more Nepalis are calling for greater transparency and accountability. Many want to know where the billions of dollars are coming from and how they are being allocated and dispersed across the country.
A social entrepreneur named Bibhusan Bista might have the answer. As the CEO of Young Innovations, a Nepali technology company that develops innovative solutions for social impact, Bista sprang into action within 24 hours of the earthquake to build the OpenNepal Earthquake Portal, a data-sharing platform that brings greater transparency to people, organizations, and countries pledging money to Nepal.
“OpenNepal empowers people with a snapshot of how money is flowing into Nepal’s rebuilding and reconstruction projects and promotes transparency at a time of great need,” says Bista, 35. “We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of Haiti.”
OpenNepal aggregates and publishes international and national earthquake relief pledges to the country. The site promotes aid transparency and accountability by empowering citizens to access the raw data behind the headlines, dig deeper for analyses, and independently verify claims. For example, the United States pledged $130 million to Nepal’s earthquake rehabilitation and reconstruction projects; the OpenNepal platform breaks down which NGOs and government agencies will receive this money, with links to relevant press releases and news articles for more details.
Aid transparency has improved in recent years. Soon after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, more than 40 countries adopted the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard for publishing data on their development activities, including budgets, annual reports, and strategic documents for country plans. Now all organizations, from government donors to private-sector organizations and NGOs, use a consistent data format known as XML, which allows for better analysis of aid data.
In 2012, Young Innovations launched AidStream, a platform for aid organizations to easily publish data in the IATI format. Since then, it has been adopted by more than 470 organizations, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which funds TakePart World).
But it’s a different story in Nepal.
“In Nepal, none of the existing NGOs and aid organizations use AidStream, except for the British Red Cross,” Bista says. “This is a significant barrier to transparency and accountability because more than 30,000 NGOs are operating in Nepal.” That number is expected to increase in coming months as more organizations offer assistance.
Sushil Koirala, the prime minister of Nepal, committed to “zero tolerance to corruption” and promised “efficiency, transparency, and accountability” at the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction in Kathmandu on June 25. But while Nepal is purportedly devoted to not repeating the mistakes of Haiti, a report by Emily Troutman, founder of Aid Works, shows that aid distribution in Nepal already “echoes” that of Haiti’s. The Red Cross claimed to provide homes to more than 130,000 people in Haiti; the number of permanent homes it built was six. Similarly, in Nepal, the 45 major aid organizations claim to have reached 3 million people with tarps; the Nepal shelter coordination office’s official number is 762,000 people.
Despite Bista’s best efforts with the OpenNepal platform, there are already irregularities in the data. “We fail to get to the much-reported $4.4 billion pledged to Nepal, once you break it down by donor. We can only account for about $3.85 billion of the pledged aid,” Bista says.
The hope is that technology initiatives like OpenNepal and AidStream, along with strict standards such as IATI, can create an environment where transparency is possible. For now, even though money is still being accounted for, many relief and reconstruction projects are well under way across Nepal. The Young Innovations team is also moving quickly to add features that track relief money as it changes hands from donors and reaches reconstruction projects across the country. Bista is hopeful that his company can partner with the government or a Nepali organization to track and monitor projects on the ground.
“Independently verifying that the pledged money was delivered to the intended project is the biggest challenge for transparency and accountability today,” he says. “We want to prevent the Haiti mistakes and serve as a model for how technology can help facilitate transparency and accountability.”