Opening the windows to knowledge

More than half of international aid for developing countries comes from the European Union and its Member States.

Implementing the EU’s development budget involves a wide range of partners across the world.  These include staff working in the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels, its delegations in non-EU countries, EU Member States, other international donors, NGOs and the wider development community.

These partners need to cooperate, share knowledge and exchange best practices in order to deliver EU development aid effectively.  An online platform called capacity4dev (developed using the Drupal open-source content management system) was set up to meet this need in 2009.  It supports capacity development both within the institution and the wider development community.  The site has developed into a lively online community, which currently counts over 5000 users collaborating in more than 200 public and private online groups.  I spoke recently with Christoforos Korakas, the Development Manager of capacity4dev.

Chris described the situation that triggered the creation of capacity4dev.  Information is locked away in e-mail exchanges, as well as a variety of information systems that remained inaccessible for many people.  Collaboration is hampered by organisational silos.  High staff turnover and increasingly reliance on external contractors mean that much valuable information and expertise is often lost. The lack of a common platform means that there is often a duplication of efforts and  knowledge scattered across various ad hoc solutions developed over time by different groups of people.

Even though these issues are far from being solved, Capacity4dev has helped to turn the situation around, connecting the Commission’s DG for Development and Cooperation with development practitioners across the world.  Contrary to initial expectations, over 60% of the site’s users are from outside the Commission.  Chris says that this has helped to “open the windows” and facilitate knowledge transfer into and out of the Commission.  Opening the flow of knowledge in this way has increased the Commission’s influence, as well as bringing new sources of ideas and know-how into the institution.

Some people continue to see posting information online, instead of just clicking the e-mail send button, as a burden.  But recent experiences are helping to overcome this kind of scepticism, by showing the real added value of a platform like capacity4dev.  For example, earlier this year the EU Delegation to Zambia used capacity4dev to explain how it was using political economy analysis to make sure that development aid took greater account of local needs and realities.  As a result, this approach has now been taken up in several other countries.

I asked Chris what he thought we could learn from experiences in the USA.  He told me that he had been very impressed by the Open Government Initiative, which showed how strong political will from the top can rapidly change an administrative culture and increase transparency.  One of President Obama’s first acts after taking office was to issue an Open Government Directive that required federal agencies to take immediate action to release government data in accessible formats.  I’ll try to look at what the EU is doing to promote open data in a future post on this blog.

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