Why can’t international donors and project managers think more in terms of the geography and location of their programs? Last week the Aiddata  conference in Oxford discussed new approaches to enhance aid transparency and donor coordination. Key issues many panelists discussed were:
- To what extent aid flows are responsive to local needs?
- How to enhance the social accountability of development aid?
- How to improve the impact of aid on improving the well-being of poor communities?
During the discussion, I was intrigued by the group’s creativity and commitment to developing new theoretical approaches to understanding the effects of development aid, and to finding practical solutions to convert data on aid flows (the AidData portal  contains approximately 1 Million records of DAC and non-DAC donors) into information and analysis that becomes actionable information for policymakers.
During the Conference, I made a presentation on Inter-active Mapping and Crowdsourcing and how these approaches can provide innovative and creative solutions to improve aid transparency and effectiveness and critically to enhance the social accountability of donors and aid programs. At the core of these approaches stands the need to acknowledge the link between Geography and Aid.
- Why does it matter to analyze aid flows in geographic terms?
- What value does spatial analysis add to policy debates and the concrete challenges of enhancing donor coordination particularly at the sub-national level?
Several years ago, I read and was fascinated by the book Geography and Trade  by Paul Krugman. The main point raised in his groundbreaking work was that international trade theories completely overlooked the issue of geography. He went on to show that agglomeration effects matter a great deal when trying to explain the effects of trade on a country. Along the lines of Krugman’s work, I strongly believe that Geography matters a great deal to the Aid Effectiveness and Transparency agenda set out by the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness  and the follow-up Accra Agenda for Action . Here are basic arguments for why we should care:
- In today’s globalized economy and society, the economic and social inequalities within countries have increased dramatically, whereby the emerging new middle class in China, India or Brazil has more in common in terms of living conditions and social opportunities with the middle class in the developed world than with poor communities within their own country. In other words, there is increasing evidence for a clear and direct correlation between poverty, geography and ethnicity
- The goals set forward by the MDGs, particularly maternal and infant mortality rates will not be met, if there continue to exist extreme pockets of poverty concentrated in certain regions within developing countries
- How can we know whether or not individual projects and programs are adequately targeted to fight poverty and to improve the well-being of the most vulnerable groups; and how can we know whether the large number of existing donor programs (i.e. more than 200 donor-funded projects exist in Bolivia in education alone) contribute to reaching the MDGs?
- Finally, how can citizens and the so-called ‘project beneficiaries’ participate and derive any meaningful benefits, if they don’t even know where multiple donor programs are planned and located?
Imagine if we could develop a fully transparent and open map of all development activities showing the geographic location of all programs within a single country. Imagine the potentially transformative role inter-active mapping tools and the establishment of direct feedback loops between citizens and donors facilitated by mobile technology could provide to improve the impact of development programs on the ground. Imagine international donors directly engaging in a dialogue about the effects of their programs with citizens. Global Voices  provides an example of a powerful platform for people who are frequently ignored in global policy debates to make their voices heard. Imagine an openstreetmap  that empowers citizens to map where projects actually touch the ground and contrast that with what projects were planned by a Government or donor? This is where citizens’ voices and the often abstract notion of the enhanced social accountability of governments and donors can converge.