Sanjay Pradhan

How open data is changing international aid

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Transcribed by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

I grew up in Bihar, India's poorest state, and I remember when I was six years old, I remember coming home one day to find a cart full of the most delicious sweets at our doorstep. My brothers and I dug in, and that's when my father came home. He was livid, and I still remember how we cried when that cart with our half-eaten sweets was pulled away from us.


Later, I understood why my father got so upset. Those sweets were a bribe from a contractor who was trying to get my father to award him a government contract. My father was responsible for building roads in Bihar, and he had developed a firm stance against corruption, even though he was harassed and threatened. His was a lonely struggle, because Bihar was also India's most corrupt state, where public officials were enriching themselves, [rather] than serving the poor who had no means to express their anguish if their children had no food or no schooling.


And I experienced this most viscerally when I traveled to remote villages to study poverty. And as I went village to village, I remember one day, when I was famished and exhausted, and I was almost collapsing in a scorching heat under a tree, and just at that time, one of the poorest men in that village invited me into his hut and graciously fed me. Only I later realized that what he fed me was food for his entire family for two days. This profound gift of generosity challenged and changed the very purpose of my life. I resolved to give back.


Later, I joined the World Bank, which sought to fight such poverty by transferring aid from rich to poor countries. My initial work focused on Uganda, where I focused on negotiating reforms with the Finance Ministry of Uganda so they could access our loans. But after we disbursed the loans, I remember a trip in Uganda where I found newly built schools without textbooks or teachers, new health clinics without drugs, and the poor once again without any voice or recourse. It was Bihar all over again.


Bihar represents the challenge of development: abject poverty surrounded by corruption. Globally, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, and the work I did in Uganda represents the traditional approach to these problems that has been practiced since 1944, when winners of World War II, 500 founding fathers, and one lonely founding mother, gathered in New Hampshire, USA, to establish the Bretton Woods institutions, including the World Bank. And that traditional approach to development had three key elements. First, transfer of resources from rich countries in the North to poorer countries in the South, accompanied by reform prescriptions. Second, the development institutions that channeled these transfers were opaque, with little transparency of what they financed or what results they achieved. And third, the engagement in developing countries was with a narrow set of government elites with little interaction with the citizens, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of development assistance.


Today, each of these elements is opening up due to dramatic changes in the global environment. Open knowledge, open aid, open governance, and together, they represent three key shifts that are transforming development and that also hold greater hope for the problems I witnessed in Uganda and in Bihar.


The first key shift is open knowledge. You know, developing countries today will not simply accept solutions that are handed down to them by the U.S., Europe or the World Bank. They get their inspiration, their hope, their practical know-how, from successful emerging economies in the South. They want to know how China lifted 500 million people out of poverty in 30 years, how Mexico's Oportunidades program improved schooling and nutrition for millions of children. This is the new ecosystem of open-knowledge flows, not just traveling North to South, but South to South, and even South to North, with Mexico's Oportunidades today inspiring New York City.


And just as these North-to-South transfers are opening up, so too are the development institutions that channeled these transfers. This is the second shift: open aid. Recently, the World Bank opened its vault of data for public use, releasing 8,000 economic and social indicators for 200 countries over 50 years, and it launched a global competition to crowdsource innovative apps using this data. Development institutions today are also opening for public scrutiny the projects they finance. Take GeoMapping. In this map from Kenya, the red dots show where all the schools financed by donors are located, and the darker the shade of green, the more the number of out-of-school children. So this simple mashup reveals that donors have not financed any schools in the areas with the most out-of-school children, provoking new questions. Is development assistance targeting those who most need our help? In this manner, the World Bank has now GeoMapped 30,000 project activities in 143 countries, and donors are using a common platform to map all their projects. This is a tremendous leap forward in transparency and accountability of aid.


And this leads me to the third, and in my view, the most significant shift in development: open governance. Governments today are opening up just as citizens are demanding voice and accountability. From the Arab Spring to the Anna Hazare movement in India, using mobile phones and social media not just for political accountability but also for development accountability. Are governments delivering services to the citizens? So for instance, several governments in Africa and Eastern Europe are opening their budgets to the public.


But, you know, there is a big difference between a budget that's public and a budget that's accessible. This is a public budget. (Laughter) And as you can see, it's not really accessible or understandable to an ordinary citizen that is trying to understand how the government is spending its resources. To tackle this problem, governments are using new tools to visualize the budget so it's more understandable to the public. In this map from Moldova, the green color shows those districts that have low spending on schools but good educational outcomes, and the red color shows the opposite. Tools like this help turn a shelf full of inscrutable documents into a publicly understandable visual, and what's exciting is that with this openness, there are today new opportunities for citizens to give feedback and engage with government. So in the Philippines today, parents and students can give real-time feedback on a website,, or using SMS, whether teachers and textbooks are showing up in school, the same problems I witnessed in Uganda and in Bihar. And the government is responsive. So for instance, when it was reported on this website that 800 students were at risk because school repairs had stalled due to corruption, the Department of Education in the Philippines took swift action.


And you know what's exciting is that this innovation is now spreading South to South, from the Philippines to Indonesia, Kenya, Moldova and beyond. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, even an impoverished community was able to use these tools to voice its aspirations. This is what the map of Tandale looked like in August, 2011. But within a few weeks, university students were able to use mobile phones and an open-source platform to dramatically map the entire community infrastructure. And what is very exciting is that citizens were then able to give feedback as to which health or water points were not working, aggregated in the red bubbles that you see, which together provides a graphic visual of the collective voices of the poor. Today, even Bihar is turning around and opening up under a committed leadership that is making government transparent, accessible and responsive to the poor.


But, you know, in many parts of the world, governments are not interested in opening up or in serving the poor, and it is a real challenge for those who want to change the system. These are the lonely warriors like my father and many, many others, and a key frontier of development work is to help these lonely warriors join hands so they can together overcome the odds. So for instance, today, in Ghana, courageous reformers from civil society, Parliament and government, have forged a coalition for transparent contracts in the oil sector, and, galvanized by this, reformers in Parliament are now investigating dubious contracts. These examples give new hope, new possibility to the problems I witnessed in Uganda or that my father confronted in Bihar.


Two years ago, on April 8th, 2010, I called my father. It was very late at night, and at age 80, he was typing a 70-page public interest litigation against corruption in a road project. Though he was no lawyer, he argued the case in court himself the next day. He won the ruling, but later that very evening, he fell, and he died. He fought till the end, increasingly passionate that to combat corruption and poverty, not only did government officials need to be honest, but citizens needed to join together to make their voices heard. These became the two bookends of his life, and the journey he traveled in between mirrored the changing development landscape.


Today, I'm inspired by these changes, and I'm excited that at the World Bank, we are embracing these new directions, a significant departure from my work in Uganda 20 years ago. We need to radically open up development so knowledge flows in multiple directions, inspiring practitioners, so aid becomes transparent, accountable and effective, so governments open up and citizens are engaged and empowered with reformers in government. We need to accelerate these shifts. If we do, we will find that the collective voices of the poor will be heard in Bihar, in Uganda, and beyond. We will find that textbooks and teachers will show up in schools for their children. We will find that these children, too, have a real chance of breaking their way out of poverty. Thank you. (Applause) (Applause)

How do we make sure that development and aid money actually goes to the people who most need it? Sanjay Pradhan of the World Bank Institute lays out three guidelines to help relief efforts make the most impact — while curbing corruption. One key: connecting the players who are working to change broken systems with the data they need.

About the speaker
Sanjay Pradhan · Development Leader

Sanjay Pradhan is vice president of the World Bank Institute, helping leaders in developing countries learn skills for reform, development and good governance.

Sanjay Pradhan is vice president of the World Bank Institute, helping leaders in developing countries learn skills for reform, development and good governance.