When a disaster happens — an earthquake in Nepal or disease outbreak in West Africa — governments, the private sector, and institutions often respond with the promise of millions or even billions of dollars, as well as medical workers, supplies, and logistical support. These promises help stem a crisis and head off deeper catastrophe. But keeping track of these promises can be tough. And sometimes it’s hard to explain what ultimately happens to pledges once they are made and to hold people accountable for delivering real outcomes on the ground.
During the Ebola outbreak, ONE was often asked—and we asked ourselves—“how much have donors promised, and what have they delivered?”
It seems like this should be a simple question. After all, we know that donors pledged significant resources, many of them documented publicly through major speeches or press releases.
Yet in the case of Ebola, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. And that’s a big problem.
Faithful readers of the ONE blog will know that late last year, we created an interactive online tracker to keep tabs on donors’ pledges. Our tracker focused initially on the donor countries where we knew the governments well, but over time we added more countries, foundations and other donors as information became available. Working with technical partners, we strove to better understand what was really happening with the resources being promised, but we still faced limitations that made it hard to get a comprehensive, clear picture.
Our experience in developing our Ebola tracker taught us a clear lesson: the tools we have today for tracking resources in a crisis are not fit-for-purpose.
While it’s often possible to find information about one category of a specific donor’s pledge, there is no “one-stop shop” that donors, implementers, and the public can use to reliably understand, measure, and compare the amounts and types of resources that have been pledged, what resources have been disbursed, and what gaps remain unfilled.
Inevitably, skeptics will say: “in the middle of a crisis where people are losing their lives, is financial accountability really an urgent priority?” But it’s not just a dry accounting exercise. Clarity about aid flows, and holding leaders and implementers accountable for delivery, should be seen as a matter of life or death. If we don’t know what has been promised and what has been spent or delivered, no one can adequately match promised resources to needs on the ground. That means gaps cannot be identified and time lags will result in more lives lost.
The Ebola White Paper (available here in PDF form and also published on The Lancet here) is our attempt to summarize what we learned from creating and updating our own Ebola tracker, as well as what we learned from other partners’ tracking efforts. We’re publishing it this week because world leaders are meeting at the United Nations on July 9th and 10th to discuss long-term recovery efforts from Ebola, and we think improving transparency and accountability are essential parts of their long-term thinking.
Ultimately, until the world creates a smarter system for tracking resources, we are doomed to repeat our collective mistakes, and in the next crisis we will lose time, resources – and lives.