TAI Weekly | July 19, 2017
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In Case You Missed It… 

TAI’s “weekly” is an informal recap for TAI’s donor members on news, research, and events relevant to our four work streams: data use for accountability, taxation and tax governance, strengthening civic space, and learning from improved grant making. The weekly is in no way an update on individual grantee activity and content is not a reflection of TAI member views or thinking. 

Photo: Unsplash

How does technology enhance a community-driven initiative? Sometimes by addressing basic needs. The Open Government Partnership introduces us to Dattabot, a platform for data collection and analysis that adapts to low connectivity environments. Dattabot has proved instrumental in helping overcome a data gathering bottleneck around local service delivery in Indonesia, ensuring more comprehensive, reliable data and freeing staff time for analysis and improvements.

Tech can also take advantage of data for analysis. The UK is launching a tool, born of big data review, for procurers to spot possible cartels. Meanwhile, a call is growing for the US to adopt the open contracting data standard, recognizing that the DATA Act has yet to extend to management of $1.8 trillion in US procurement.

Machine learning can be harnessed for many more sectors than procurement, but the governance of artificial intelligence remains a work in progress. As iterated at the recent AI Now gathering, there is a need to bring more disciplines and expertise into AI research, especially as applications are already impacting societies (see the Bertelsmann Stiftung case studies on machines judging people). Talking inNew York this past week, Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch noted the need for a new understanding of the rules and that civil society is typically good at shaping rules, but the challenge is the pace of change. Jenny Toomey of Ford referenced German legislation for social media companies that may look reasonable in clamping down on “bad things” but may set a dangerous precedent for legislating in other contexts. 

While AI may be changing things too fast, is the non profit sector only talking to innovation and not doing enough to break out? The summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review covers cocreation and why only a portion of organizations adopting it are producing innovative solutions. As far as anti-corruption innovations, U4 is building an Innovation Lab for Anti-Corruption in Development. Will the focus on action research approaches be truly ground breaking?

In fact, the search for solutions continues to bring together democracy actors. The U.S. donor affinity group, Funder’s Committee for Civic Participation, stands by a long game view despite short-term concerns. They underscore the value of nonprofit organizations being connected to the community – a recurrent theme at the Human Rights Funders Network (formerly International Human Rights Funders Group) conference this past week. There was much talk on how to “shift the power” from top down to community up. This list of ten priorities to enable that shift is from the Hunger Project, but very much resonates with the concept of building accountability.

Duncan Green is looking to reshape the Power Cube with local communities and apply it to “the problem of how to prevent governments from cracking down on civil society organizations.” Stay tuned for further reflections on this effort.

Russia expert Masha Gessen was also talking at the HRFN conference this week, discussing “squishy reality,” the staying power of old-fashioned activism, and an important rule for surviving autocracies: institutions will not save you but you can push them to act. (Check out her similar presentation from a couple of weeks ago.) Recognizing the authoritarian trend, Sebastian Mallaby doesn’t deny the external threat to liberalism, but argues liberals first need to address their internal self confidence crisis.

What are the tools to address populism? Canada 2020 urge open dialogue. They have just completed a cross-country dialogue on how to make government more meaningful. They find civic participation is more nuanced than many assume, and its power lies in storytelling.

The stories people tell, however, depend on access to information. Google and its competitors (and their algorithms) are already a force in shaping what news people access, but what if they are creating the news too? Newsrooms are partnering on experiments for software to generate news stories automatically.

On crackdowns, environmental and land defenders are being killed with far too much regularity (and impunity). The Guardian and Global Witness have teamed up on a new Defenders site to provide up to date coverage. More broadly, a new report from Heinrich Boll Stiftung examines restrictions placed on civil society in the context of natural resource exploitation.

Talking of natural resources, Alex Gillies offers a thoughtful take on why proposed US legislation to counter anonymous shell companies would be good for cleaning up the oil sector. The FT interviews trucking tycoon Moise Katumbi, who wants to be the next president of the DRC. He notes that “mining companies pay tax in Congo, billions of dollars, and the government never talks about those billions. Where is this mining money going? That is the big question.”  Don Hubert for Publish What You Pay may offer answers as he outlines paths to tax losses for resource rich countries, distinguishing revenue loss due to the tax rates applied to an extractive sector project, and revenue loss due to the tax base against which those revenues are assessed.

The ramifications of tax diversion can be surprising – following an Oxfam report on the Reckitt Benckiser company dodging taxes, the company itself is calling on governments to bring about multinational tax transparency. Clearly, authorities are keen to get what info they can to clamp down. Germany has paid millions of euros for the inventory of the Panama Papers and will put them in electronic format for easier evaluation. It’s a controversial move, although paying large sums for illegally obtained data is in fact legal in Germany. In the UK, tax evasion investigations are also going global. The UK tax authority has doubled requests to foreign governments for assistance on this matter.

What about pulling in taxes at a more local level? US state by state data is now available from the Pew Charitable Trusts on a mix of tax sources for FY 2016 – corporate tax shares are down from the preceding last year.  It will be interesting to layer with data on inequality. Conveniently the linkages between tax policies, spending decisions and labor protections are pulled together in a new Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index launched by Oxfam and Development Finance International today and previewed with TAI members this past week. The most committed to equality? Sweden. The least? Nigeria.

How do funders learn? Julia Coffman of the Center for Evaluation Innovation explores everything from work space to training to incentive structures. Responsibility for learning should not be left solely with foundation evaluators and learning is about more than facilitation and what happens in a meeting room. Julia emphasizes the value of interactions for learning, but they should also inform our reasoning. Much of what you think you know about reasoning is wrong, explains a Washington Post interview with Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, authors of “The Enigma of Reason.” Reasoning may not help us make better decisions on our own, but it can help us to solve disagreements with others and possibly even update our starting position.

Of course, reasoning alone will not necessarily shift donor practice. The hundred plus human rights funders in New York this week were asking why they, as a collective, have not shifted more to what they know to be good funder practice i.e. core, multi-year funding and listening to grantees (check out the conference twitter feed). Hopefully you feel governance funders have made more progress.

When it comes to what foundations are looking for, check out the first in a new podcast series on What Donors Want featuring TAI’s own Alfonsina Penaloza offering Hewlett perspectives.

And for some welcome light relief, TAI members Hewlett and MacArthur – and frequent grantee Brookings – make it into the Onion


On the calendar…