LONDON—Last year six governments promised hundreds of millions of dollars to help educate Syrian refugee children. Human Rights Watch investigated the progress of those donors in fulfilling their pledges and says it found large-scale discrepancies between what was promised and what was delivered.
For example, the organization says in a recent report that Lebanon was told to expect $350 million for the 2016 school year, but $97 million of that failed to arrive. Jordan was promised $249.6 million, but it says just $208.4 million actually arrived—although the donors say they gave more than $375 million.
Much of the money was also sent late, the report says.
At the conference, the donors had agreed that aid should be sent before the school year began, to allow host countries to make sure teachers were hired and textbooks were purchased. But as of early September 2016, Jordan was still missing 69 percent of its promised funds, and Lebanon was missing 47 percent. This tardiness meant that fewer Syrian refugee students were able to get an education last year, according to the report.
One of the report’s authors, Bill Van Esveld, says the most shocking part of the report was the difficulty Human Rights Watch had in getting the spending figures.
“The more we looked, the more we realized it was difficult to impossible to answer basic questions like when will the money arrive, what projects will they fund and exactly how much will be given,” says Van Esveld.
That’s something that other experts have experienced. “We’ve tried to follow education finance commitments in the past, and we found it very hard,” says Philippa Lei, the director of programs and advocacy at the Malala Fund. “I totally agree with the report’s findings that the data isn’t available in a transparent manner.”
The Human Rights Watch report tracked the funding guarantees made by the six biggest donors at the conference: the European Union, Germany, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“From a host-country point of view, if you don’t know how much money you’re getting for how long and when, then how can you possibly plan?” says Van Esveld.
In addition to reviewing publicly available data, Van Esveld and his colleagues also followed up with officials at the agencies and government bodies involved with aid delivery.
“We went through all the various databases and still couldn’t answer our questions, so we contacted them directly to ask,” says Van Esveld. “It was astonishing to me that they’d get back to us saying they would have to compile the data. It would take them two months just to do that. Even the donors don’t readily know the answers to these questions.”
All donors replied to Van Esveld’s inquiries, but some were more forthright than others.
The United Kingdom seems to be one of the more straightforward of the entities investigated. The report notes that the British government publishes transparent information and provided detailed information of the funds it promised at the London conference.
“The U.K. has really been making strides in transparency, and there are others like Norway that are also doing well,” says Lei.
Japan, was perhaps the most tight-lipped of the major donors. There was no publicly available information on Japan’s of its funding commitments from the London conference, and Japan’s foreign ministry told Human Rights Watch investigators that it would not share the relevant information.
“We know less about Japan than any of the others, and that’s because they just won’t share that information,” says Van Esveld. “In Japan, they seem to lean towards confidentially, which I think is misplaced.”
Both Van Esveld and Lei say that the best way to ensure funders make good on their obligations is to introduce more transparency.
“We’re not calling for more money to be given. We’re not telling them how to spend their money, because they know better, but if you promise money to education, then we really do need to know what is being funded,” says Van Esveld. “As a civil society, how can we improve things if we don’t know how the money is spent?”
Additionally, he argued that donors should streamline the bureaucracy surrounding the aid-giving process.
Often donors will grant funding from different revenue streams—some designated specifically for education and others for international development. “Donors are counting from different pots, which don’t talk to each other,” says Lei. “That’s a huge issue.”
Van Esveld says it would have been so much easier to follow the funding if donors would agree to use a common database format to track the progress of their pledges. Several donors engaged with him in good faith and were keen to provide the information that he requested, he says, but they struggled to be accurate—often correcting themselves and doubling back. “The fact that they had to work so hard indicates a problem.”
“I hope this report provides ammunition for the transparency warriors inside these organizations,” says Van Esveld.