I’ve spent the last three years working on aid transparency. As I’m moving on to a very exciting new role (watch this space for more details) this seems a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last three years.

This is a self-indulgently long essay about the importance of aid transparency, and the priorities for how it should be achieved. Busy readers may want to read the 8-point summary below.  And for a very clear and concise introduction to the importance of aid transparency, take a look at  this video by my (former) colleagues at aidinfo.

The 8-point summary

Here are what I think are the eight most important things I’ve learned in the last three years about transparency in general, and aid transparency in particular:

  1. To make a difference, transparency has to be citizen-centred not donor-centred.
    Citizen-centred transparency would allow citizens of developing countries to combine and use information from many different donor agencies; and provide aid information compatible with the classifications of their own country budget.
  2. Today’s ways of publishing information serve the needs of the powerful, not citizens
    Existing mechanisms for publishing aid information were designed by the powerful for the powerful. Until the aidinfo team started 3 years ago, nobody had ever done a systematic study of the information needs of all stakeholders, including citizens, parliamentarians and civil society, let alone thought about how those needs could be met.
  3. People in developing countries want transparency of execution not just allocation
    There are important differences between the information requirements of people in donor countries and people in developing countries.  Current systems for aid transparency focus mainly on transparency of aid allocation, because that is what donor country stakeholders are largely interested in, and not enough on transparency of spending execution, which is of primary interest to people in developing countries.
  4. Show, don’t tell
    Citizens in donor nations are increasingly sceptical of annual reports and press releases. In aid as in other public services they want to be able to see for themselves the detail of how their money is being used and what difference it is making. They increasingly expect to engaged, and are less willing to be passive funders leaving  the decisions entirely to ‘experts’. Donor agencies – whether government agencies, international organisations or NGOs – will have to adapt rapidly to become platforms for citizen engagement.
  5. Transparency of aid execution will drive out waste, bureaucracy and corruption
    There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of waste, bureaucracy and corruption in the aid system.  There is good evidence that this kind of waste is rapidly reduced when the flow of money is made transparent. Corruption and waste prosper in dark places.
  6. Social accountability could be Development 3.0
    The results agenda in aid agencies is currently too top down and pays too little attention to the power of bottom up information from the intended beneficiaries of aid.  Increased accountability to citizens may be the key to unlocking better service delivery, improved governance and faster development.
  7. The burden of proof should be on those who advocate secrecy
    We have published a compelling business case for greater transparency, with all the uncertainties this kind of analysis entails. So where is the business case for secrecy, which would be far harder to quantify or defend?  Why does nobody even ask for it?  Why is the (inevitable) uncertainty in this kind of analysis allowed to count against the case for transparency, when the same uncertainty would deal a much greater blow against the case for secrecy?
  8. Give citizens of developing countries the benefit of the doubt
    Transparency is necessary but not sufficient for more effective aid. But the fact that transparency alone will not solve every problem should not be an excuse for aid agencies to shirk their responsibilities to be transparent. Nor should we be too attentive to vested interests in the aid industry telling us that transparency is not enough. Citizens of developing countries will be more innovative and effective than some people give them credit for when we give the information they need to hold the powerful to account.

That’s the summary.  If any of that whets your appetite and you want the long version, read on.  In my next post, I’ll look at the ten steps that development organisations should take towards aid transparency.

Aid transparency: worthy but dull?

Some of my family and friends have wondered why I have devoted three years to a topic which is so utterly dull as aid transparency.  (Most of them are too polite to ask.)  The answer is that I think this matters, very profoundly, for development and for aid.

In my heart I’m a budget wonk.  I’ve worked on budgeting in the UK Treasury and in the South African Treasury. My opinions on the importance of budget systems and how they can be improved can clear a room in seconds.

King Charles I was executed because he refused to accept Parliament's right to control tax and spending

Budget accountability is not just a technical question. England fought a civil war on the issue of Parliament’s ability to control tax and spending. It is the defining characteristic of legitimate government: if the British government cannot carry its budget in Parliament, it falls.  The power of the US Congress to control spending is at the heart of the relationship between the legislature and the executive in the US balance of power. In Australia, Gough Whitlam was sacked as Prime Minister on the pretext of his failure to carry supply in the Senate.

My obsession with the technical and political importance of the budget is why I first became interested in aid transparency.

Here in Ethiopia, donors and NGOs spend more than the government raises in domestic revenues.  Yet there is no way for a member of parliament, a journalist, a civil society organization or – heaven forbid! – actual citizens to find out what foreign powers are doing in this country.

Donor behaviour makes a mockery of the idea that the heart of government is the allocation and execution of the budget.

It isn’t only a question of legitimacy and sovereignty: for anyone who has worked on public budgeting it is also a practical question of getting the maximum value for money.

For example: a friend was working for the Health Ministry in Malawi. They were trying to work out where to invest in building new community clinics. They know where their own clinics are, of course: but have no way to find out where donors and NGOs have built, or will be building, new clinics.  So there is no way for them to assess which communities do not have a clinic nearby.  In the end they had to guess.

Parliamentarians, the media and civil society need to know how much money donors are paying to governments, and on what terms, so that they hold the government to account for how that money is used. They need to know how much money is being spent by donors outside the budget process, how can they have an informed discussion about the government’s budget allocations.

My interest in aid transparency came about initially from anger at the way donors undermine budget systems in developing countries, and I am no less angry about that today. How dare we urge countries to improve their budget systems and lecture them about the efficient allocation and execution of their budget while refusing to provide them with the information they need to do so?  How dare we demand more productive public spending, while providing none of the certainty and stability they need to get the maximum value? How dare we lecture developing countries on the need to be accountable while denying citizens and Parliaments the information they need to make an informed judgment about budget allocations?

The right to information for taxpayers in donor countries

Intellectually, I understand also the idea that citizens in donor countries should have access to information about how their money is being spent.

But to be honest, until recently I found it difficult to be motivated by this. It just never grabbed me emotionally. Foreign aid is such a pitifully small amount of money – about half of one percent of national income in most donor countries – that it didn’t seem to me a great priority for the citizens of those countries to be given a lot of information about it. And I certainly did not want to use up a big chunk of a small amount of money to answer questions from freedom of information advocates, if the consequence was that we reduced the amount of money going to people who really need it in developing countries, for example to give them access to food, water, health or education.

I’ve changed my mind about the importance of this, for three reasons.

First, I am increasingly convinced that citizens of donor countries are, in the end, the only people who can insist on aid working better.  Many of us would like aid to be accountable and responsive to the needs and interests of poor people.  But that isn’t how the power relationship works, at least not directly.  Whether we like it or not, aid will always be responsive to the people who pay for it – and that means the taxpayers of donor countries, as intermediated by their political representatives.  Fortunately, these people do genuinely want their aid to be helpful to people in poor countries, though they presently have little idea what that means in practice.  If we want aid to be more effective, we have to get information from the people in poor countries who are supposed to benefiting from aid into the hands of the citizens of donor countries showing them what is working and what is not.

Expedia screenshot

Expedia gives customers comparable information compiled from many different sources.

Second, the zeitgeist in industrialised countries is changing.  Twenty years ago, citizens were happy to delegate to aid agencies and NGOs the responsibility of spending aid well, and to be told from time to time what had happened to their money.  That’s no longer true: people increasingly expect to be shown, not told, what has happened to their money, and they expect to be more involved in making choices. Information that was impossibly expensive to collect and access even a decade ago can now be published online as a matter of course, and that is what people expect from their public services.  Technology enables people to be involved in the management of their services day to day, and not just every five years.

Aid agencies in the 21st century cannot continue to act like old-fashioned travel agents – respositories of expertise and information about options, to whom the money was given and decisions delegated. If aid agencies want to retain public trust, mandate and funding, they will have to become like Expedia – a platform on which citizens can see meaningful, comparable and reliable information and then exercise choices themselves. Unless aid agencies respond to these changing expectations, support for their work is likely to continue to decline, perhaps disastrously.

Third, the access to information movement is powerful, effective and smart. We in development have much to learn from the work they have done about the most useful ways for information to be made public, for rights to information to be asserted, and for the balance between freedom of information and privacy to be respected.  Their ideas about the need for open, reusable, mashable government data is hugely more advanced than any thinking on these issues in development circles.  (I found this paper on Government Data and the Invisible Hand especially interesting and helpful.)

Different information needs in North and South

The first thing the aidinfo team did was to pull together a comprehensive analysis of who needs aid information and what information they need.  We were surprised – indeed, a little shocked – to find that nobody had ever asked this question.

The OECD Development Assistance Committee has been collecting aid statistics for five decades, and it is the global centre of excellence on aid information. But they have a specific mandate: to share information among donors about donor efforts.  They have a database designed for this purpose.  But they have no mandate, capacity or resources to provide information about aid to people in developing countries. (This is not a criticism of the staff of the DAC, who carry out their task with great professionalism; it is a reflection on the nature of the way that powerful interests are able to define the priorities for transparency.)

We worked with actual and potential users of aid information in developing countries and in industrialised countries to find out, for the first time, what information they need.  We found a hugely rich and diverse set of people wanting information about aid.  You can find our case studies here.

For me, the most interesting lesson was the contrast between what we heard from people in developing countries and people in donor countries.

In donor countries, we heard much the same from everyone: they want detailed information about where aid is going.  International NGOs wanted to check whether donors had kept their promises, whether to increase aid overall or to fund particular programmes.  They wanted to highlight cases where aid had been allocated badly – for example, redirected from poor countries to more politically and commercially salient middle-income countries. Researchers and academics wanted information about allocation, mainly try to estimate the impact of that aid, or to provide evidence about the motives which drive aid allocations.   Ministers, parliamentarians and their researchers spoke despairingly of their inability to give a coherent account of where their country’s aid is going, or to show whether aid is being used for their citizens’ priorities.  All this is extremely important.

Yet none of the people we spoke to in developing countries mentioned any of this.  For people in developing countries the questions revolve around execution, not allocation, of aid programmes.  When a donor announces that they are giving aid to – say – a housing project in their country, what actually happens to the money? How is the contract tendered? How much money gets skimmed off by consultants and in donor overheads? How much money arrives in the country, and how much stays behind in the donor country?  Does any end up in the pockets of ministers and officials? Who decides what is built and where?  How much money actually gets spent on construction, how many houses get built, and where are they?

Key lesson: people from donor countries are mainly interested in aid allocation, people in developing countries are mainly interested in execution.

This difference in outlook partly reflects different experiences and expectations: people in industrialised countries tend to assume that a spending decision, once made, will actually be executed with a reasonable degree of efficiency.  That is not the assumption made by people in developing countries.  The difference in outlook also reflects different accountabilities: people in developing countries cannot hold industrialised countries to account for the choices they make about their aid priorities, but they can hold local players to account for how the money, once allocated, is used and what is delivered with it.  So that is what they want information about.

“We may be illiterate but we are not stupid”

We would like to tell you the story of $150m going up in smoke,” said the young villager. “We heard on the radio that there was going to be a reconstruction programme in our region to help us rebuild our houses after coming back from exile, and we were very pleased.”  This was the summer of 2002. The village was in a remote part of Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, and several hours’ drive from the provincial capital—utterly cut off from the world. UN agencies and NGOs were rushing to provide “quick impact” projects to help Afghan citizens in the aftermath of war. $150m could have transformed the lives of the inhabitants of villages like this one.  But it was not to be, as the young man explained. “After many months, very little had happened. We may be illiterate, but we are not stupid. So we went to find out what was going on. And this is what we discovered: the money was received by an agency in Geneva, who took 20 per cent and subcontracted the job to another agency in Washington DC, who also took 20 per cent. Again it was subcontracted and another 20 per cent was taken; and this happened again when the money arrived in Kabul. By this time there was very little money left; but enough for someone to buy wood in western Iran and have it shipped by a shipping cartel owned by a provincial governor at five times the cost of regular transportation. Eventually some wooden beams reached our villages. But the beams were too large and heavy for the mud walls that we can build. So all we could do was chop them up and use them for firewood.”

Claire Lockhart, “The Failed State We’re In”, Prospect Magazine, June 2008

In donor countries we heard quite a lot about the need to hold aid organisations to account.  On this view, aid agencies and NGOs should be able to show exactly how their money is used, and for what.  Many organisations already put quite a lot of information on their websites so that their stakeholders can look at their activities in detail.

Yet from developing countries, we heard nothing at all about the need to hold individual aid agencies to account. Few people in developing countries are concerned with the performance of the World Bank, or of DFID.  They usually want to know, from all that money from whatever source, how much is likely to arrive in their community, or into their sector, and how they can influence how that money will be spent.

Many developing countries have their own aid databases. These are often developed by the planning ministry or Prime Minister’s offices. I was very surprised to learn that they are almost never designed to provide information compatible with the country’s budget system; and that most of them are not available to the public.  So while these databases are very important and useful for the purpose for which they are designed, to enable developing countries to manage their relationships with donors, they usually do not meet the information needs of important stakeholders such as finance ministries, line ministries, parliamentarians and citizens.

The aid information systems we have today reflect the interests and needs of powerful and vocal stakeholders: donors and planning ministries. They do not reflect the diverse needs of parliamentarians, civil society groups, the media and citizens.  They are donor-centred, not citizen-centred.  They do not enable users to add up information from many different donors.  They are focused on aid allocation, not the details of execution.

But we should not allow ourselves to be daunted by this diversity of needs for aid information. These are are all different perspectives on the same underlying information: namely how aid money is spent by different organisations and what it pays for.  And although this information has not been organized in a way which makes it easy to access or use, it is information that every organization has, somewhere in their systems.  After all, every aid agency and every implementing organisation knows who they have written each cheque to, and for what purpose.

Donors must resist the temptation to try to predict and prioritise these different needs. If donors try to meet all the diverse needs of all potential users of aid information, they will inevitably devote their finite resources to meeting the demands of larger and more vocal interests.  (That’s why we currently have data systems designed for sharing information between donors, and with planning ministries, but nothing to give information to parliamentarians, civil society or citizens.)

Instead of trying to serve the needs of particular users, donors should publish the underlying data in an accessible format so that everyone can access it easily and analyse it from their particular perspective.  (David Eaves has written a good article about this, set in the broader context of public information.)  Only donors can publish the information they hold: so that is what they should concentrate their scarce resources on. Once they have made the information available in an easily accessible form, many other organisations and individuals will be able to use that information to serve a variety of specific users. I’ll talk in a subsequent blog post about what this means in practice for aid transparency, and the (very welcome) progress that is being made.

Corruption, bureaucracy and waste

Lai Yahaya reckons donors agreeing to aid transparency is like turkeys voting for Christmas

At the ONE Africa Symposium on technology and transparency the other day, Lai Yahaya, one of the founders of TransparentAid, said that donors and NGOs would resist aid transparency because greater openness in aid was like turkeys voting for Christmas.

When I began working on aid transparency I thought the opposite.  I’ve seen aid making a huge difference in many developing countries, and I believed then (and believe now) that if more people could see the difference aid makes, they would be more supportive of it. I thought public support for aid would continue to atrophy, and perhaps start to hemorrhage, as long as aid agencies are not able to show the public how aid is being used.  Better communication in the form of more press releases and glossier annual reports would not be sufficient: people need to be shown, not told, what difference aid is making.  So I thought radical transparency was needed to convince a skeptical public that aid is not all lost in corruption, bureaucracy and waste.  On this view, resisting pressure for transparency would be suicide.

Living in Ethiopia over the last three years has changed my view a bit on this.  A lot of aid is hugely effective and it transforms people’s lives.  The aid-funded Protection of Basic Services scheme has enabled the government massively to scale up health and education services.  The aid-funded Productive Safety Net Programme has not ended bad harvests, but it has made the population more resilient, preventing the large-scale famines we watched on TV in the 1980s. As well as these hugely successful government-to-government aid programmes there is amazing work done by a wide range of NGOs, funded both by individual donations and from government aid budgets.

But there is a lot of garbage in the aid system too.  Donors are held up with red-tape and bureaucracy. They dump money into multi-donor trust funds which the World Bank charges a hefty fee to administer, from which money is never disbursed.  Money moves from donor to international organization to trust fund to international NGO to local NGO, minus a haircut at every stage, so funding which starts as a river becomes a stream and then just a trickle. There are appalling examples of waste.  Many of the people working for aid agencies in developing countries are hard-working and committed, but they face a constant struggle to do the right thing in the face of ludicrous demands and ineffective systems imposed on them from headquarters.

Aid is precious, and waste is egregious. In Vietnam, it took 18 months and the involvement of 150 government workers to purchase five vehicles for a donor-funded project, because of differences in procurement policies among aid agencies.

If donors and NGOs were businesses in a competitive market they would have solved these problems by now, or they would have gone bust.  International NGOs (such as Save the Children and Oxfam) would not have half a dozen different national programmes operating independently here in Ethiopia: they would have consolidated them into one local office.  Donors are trying to harmonise and improve the the division of labour between them.  Some NGOs are outstanding, some are daft and some are downright harmful.  But change is slow for donors and NGOs because, in the absence of transparency, political constraints in aid are more powerful than business imperatives.

Transparency would change the imperatives and so help drive out waste and corruption. A 1996 study of school funding in Uganda showed that only 13 percent of the school grant from central government actually reached the schools; the other 87 percent was diverted either for private gain or by district officials for intermediate layers of bureaucracy. So the Ugandan government started to announce monthly transfers of funds in national newspapers and on the radio, and required primary schools to post information on in-flows of funds. When this information was made available to parents and teachers, the flow of funds improved dramatically, from 13 percent reaching schools in 1991–95, to over 80 percent of the money reaching schools in 1999 and 2000.

I was talking to the head of a small NGO here in Addis Ababa, whose funding comes mainly from the US Government.  I explained that under the transparency we were advocating, it would be possible to see in one place all the different things that different donors are funding in Ethiopia.  She was alarmed: “But that means we won’t be able to charge different donors for the same project”, she said. I said that seemed to me an advantage rather than a shortcoming of greater aid transparency.

An MP from Mozambique told me recently that he had presided over three separate opening ceremonies of the same school in his constituency, each with a different donor as guest of honour to be shown what they had funded. If there was more public information about what aid was funding, this kind of scam would be impossible.

The aid industry is far from perfect, and for as long as there are dark corners there will be corruption, bureaucracy and waste.  Overall I believe that aid works, but we can and must do much better.  When we see the true costs of the bureaucracy of aid, the costs of duplication and proliferation, and the shocking discrepancies between good organisations and bad ones, we’ll begin to see the most wasteful practices eliminated, and do a better job of funding the successful programmes. (Incidentally, in Ethiopia I think that is likely to mean putting more money through government and rather less through NGOs).

I am an enthusiastic supporter of aid. But I no longer think that aid transparency will prove to everyone that nearly aid is all efficient.  I now accept that there is more waste, bureaucracy and corruption than I wanted to believe, and this has strengthened my view that aid transparency is absolutely necessary to help to drive that out of the system.  But, unlike Lai, I continue to believe that unless donors become more transparent, and so do a better job of driving out the bad and making more space for the good, public trust in aid will continue to decline.  It is not transparency that will bring Christmas early, but secrecy.

Knowing what works: citizen accountability

John Githongo is a member of DFID's Independent Commission for Aid Impact

There’s a fashion among aid agencies for saying that we have to do a better job of finding out what works.  This manifests itself in greater emphasis on evaluation, especially on making more use of rigorous impact evaluation such as randomized control trials.  It manifests itself as linking funding more directly to results.  The UK has introduced the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, a step which I strongly support.

I think all this is essential to making the aid system work better.  I certainly don’t agree with the whining from aid industry insiders that measurement of results is burdensome or that it distorts decision-making in an unhelpful way. (I’ll write about that separately).

But I now believe that this approach, as it is being implemented, is too top down.  We can learn a lot from rigorous impact evaluations, and we need to do many more of them.  We need independent evaluation of aid agencies.  But there is something we need just as much, if not more: to know from the users of services themselves whether those services are effective and meet their needs.  Successful companies don’t decide their strategy according to impact evaluations, they respond to their customers.

I’ve become less sceptical over time of the idea of making aid and public services more accountable to the poor. A few years ago I was concerned that this might be a combination of political correctness and wishful thinking. It is hard to do, and it doesn’t reflect the realpolitik, which is that aid is always going to be accountable to the people who pay for it.

But we have growing evidence that greater accountability can make a huge difference to the quality of public services. In a randomized controlled trial in Uganda citizens gave feedback about health clinics through report cards and civil society meetings.  In the clinics where this happened, waiting time decreased; doctor and nurse absenteeism plummeted; clinics got cleaner; and fewer drugs were stolen. Most importantly, 33% fewer children under the age of five died. Improving accountability was much more effective than more expensive alternatives, such as paying for buildings, staff and medicines.

I’m on the board of Twaweza, an initiative based in East Africa which seeks to expand opportunities through which millions of people can get information and make change happen in their own communities directly and by holding government to account. One of their partners, Uwezo, aims to improve competencies in literacy and numeracy among children aged 5-16 years old in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda by enabling parents to assess the progress of their children and increasing public accountability of education services.  Daraja is a Tanzanian NGO that aims to develop tools and encourage citizens to report waterpoint functionality in their areas. Twaweza supports Daraja to enable citizens to report which water points are working in real time, through text messaging; to share information about water point functionality to the public in accessible formats, primarily through the media; and to analyze and publicize responsiveness of the government to citizen notification.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I now believe (along with the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa) that social accountability can make services work better, and contribute to development.  The powerful combination of a growing civil society voice and changes in technology make it possible, perhaps for the first time, for poor people themselves to monitor service providers and government services.

This is a new field and the evidence base is not yet in place. The most recent and comprehensive review of the literature by Rosemary McGee and John Gaventa at IDS finds this:

…there are a number of micro level studies, especially in the service delivery and budget transparency fields. These begin to suggest that in some conditions, the initiatives can contribute to a range of positive outcomes including, for instance,

  • increased state or institutional responsiveness
  • lowering of corruption
  • building new democratic spaces for citizen engagement
  • empowering local voices

Reading this survey, my conclusions were that the evidence so far is largely circumstantial though quite persuasive, but that we know rather more about the impact of greater accountability than we know about what we can do to bring that accountability about.

Transparency and accountability

We have a lot to learn about the relationship between transparency and accountability. They are not the same thing. For one thing, transparency is not zero sum: if I make information available to one person, that does not reduce the information available to someone else. (The technical economic term for this is “non rival”.)  By contrast, accountability can be zero sum, or at least subject to trade-offs: if an organisation or service becomes more accountable to the citizens it serves, it may as a result become less accountable to other stakeholders such as the government, donors or the employees.  Till Bruckner made a similar point in a thoughtful post on the Devex blog.

We have many examples of how transparency can change power relationships and accountability. An obvious example is the publication of UK Parliamentary Expenses.  In this case, as in many others, vested interests attempted to limit the information that was published and to control the narrative. For example, MPs did not want to publish the details of the houses in respect of which they were claiming accommodation costs: they wanted to publish only the summaries of claims under each category. But it was the publication of precisely these details which led to the biggest public debate and, eventually, to criminal charges against some MPs, because it was the details which showed that some MPs were abusing the system.

If our aim is to increase the accountability of public services to the intended beneficiaries, and to drive out corruption and waste, we must be vigilant to ensure that the transparency we advocate challenges, and does not entrench, existing power relationships.  We should be sceptical when we hear that publishing the details would be ‘too much information’ to be useful, or that it would be ‘disproportionately expensive’.    These are precisely the arguments that vested interests use to try to limit transparency, to try to control the narrative, and to slow down the shift in power and accountability which greater transparency brings about.  If donor organisations claim that publishing this information is ‘too expensive’ the burden of proof should be on them to demonstrate that this is true.

I am all in favour of donor agencies summarising information to tell an accessible, compelling story about what they are achieving.  But they are not entitled to maintain monopoly control of the information. The same information should be available to everyone, to enable others to examine the evidence and to construct a competing narrative if they wish.

Our existing arrangements for publishing aid information risk reinforcing, rather than challenging, existing power relationships.  Donors provide information through the DAC databases, which are designed for donors to share information with each other about their efforts.  Less reliably, they also provide information to country-level aid management systems, which are designed to enable developing country governments to manage their relationships with donors and which are, for the most part, unpublished.  Aid transparency in the future must be designed to allows citizens and civil society groups from both donor countries and developing countries to access this information in a meaningful way, to enable them to hold both governments and donors to account.

The aid industry is falling over itself to point out that transparency by itself is not enough. For example, Duncan Green says:

Don’t just throw money at transparency and accountability initiatives and expect a revolution. Unless the domestic politics is right, especially linking state and civil society actors into accountability coalitions, it may not make that much difference.

In a technical sense, it must be true that greater transparency is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for greater accountability.  But while I do not claim that transparency alone will bring about an accountability revolution, I have a lot more confidence in the ability of people of developing countries to use information to change their own lives.

I dislike and distrust the argument we hear from the aid industry that it is not enough simply to give people access to information, for five reasons:

  1. first, it is clearly the responsibility of donors to be transparent about what they do, and nobody else can publish this information for them. Donors should focus first on the parts of the problem that are their problems to solve.
  2. second, the possible need for complementary interventions is used as an excuse to move slowly on transparency (on the grounds that transparency will not make a difference unless those other institutions are in place). This is a classic case of the best becoming the enemy of the good.
  3. third, the burden of proof should be on those who advocate secrecy.  We have a compelling business case for transparency, despite the uncertainties.  But there is no business case for secrecy and nobody has ever asked for one.  The uncertainties would be just as great in either case, so why is the uncertainty allowed to count against transparency but not against secrecy?
  4. fourth, the evidence suggests that transparency does work surprisingly well. We should give the resourceful people of developing countries the benefit of the doubt. Consider the example of transparency of school budgets in Uganda – there was no civil society capacity building programme, or any of the other stuff that NGOs say might be required, yet the amount of money reaching schools went from 13% to over 80% in a few years.  There is not yet a rich enough evidence base, but there do seem to be quite a few cases in which, once people have access to information they are able to use it to improve the services they receive without (shock! horror!) a logframe, an end-to-end theory of change or capacity building support from international NGOs.
  5. fifth, this concern seems nakedly self-serving.  Much of the aid industry’s core business is “capacity building”, “linking state and civil society actors into accountability coalitions”, “stakeholder analysis”, “empowering marginalised communities”, “civil society support programmes” and so on. Just as journalists don’t like the idea of people using the internet to share information without it being intermediated by media organisations, because it undermines their sense of identity and self-worth and jeopardises their livelihoods, the aid industry doesn’t like the idea that simply giving people access to information might be enough to enable them to change their world.

I’m enthusiastic about organistions working to help communities in developing countries to access and use information as it becomes available, and especially to help them to add value to it by mixing it with information from other sources, and using it to demand better service and advocate change.  I’m proud to be on the board of Twaweza, and I think donors should allocate a modest budget to supporting this kind of work.  But I remain more optimistic than many of the vested interests in the aid business that, even if this kind of international support is not as forthcoming as they would like, transparency by itself will still make a big difference. My belief, which is supported by the (admittedly rather sketchy) evidence so far, is that once you liberate the information people will find ways to use it.

Conclusions

I’ve spent the last three years working on how greater transparency and accountability can improve the way aid works, and my thinking about these issues has changed.  In this blog post I’ve tried to explain why. We have, for the very first time, found out what information people want and what they would do with it.  We have thought about how they could get access to it. We have more and more evidence about the impact of transparency and accountability.  And more people have begun to think about this and work on it than ever before. We have, collectively, come a long way.

In a later post I’ll reflect on the (very impressive) progress that has been made on this agenda, and on the next steps.

To conclude, here is a recap of the 8 most important things I have learned:

  1. To make a difference, transparency has to be citizen-centred not donor-centred.
  2. Today’s ways of publishing information serve the needs of the powerful, not citizens
  3. People in developing countries want transparency of execution not just allocation
  4. Show, don’t tell
  5. Transparency of aid execution will drive out waste, bureaucracy and corruption
  6. Social accountability could be Development 3.0
  7. The burden of proof should be on those who advocate secrecy
  8. Give citizens of developing countries the benefit of the doubt
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29 Responses to Eight lessons from three years working on transparency

  • Owen – all the best to your know role, and thank you for this great post and sharing your insights.

    Perhaps another reason to add to your list is that transparency and citizen accountability directly contributes to the development of democracy by public discussion (as well as at the voting box) which is part of the local community’s wellbeing. It is also instrumentally valuable to the extent the NGOs and aid agencies set an example for the local government and demonstrate how transparency and citizen accountability can work in practice notwithstanding considerable waste and inefficiency.

  • Thanks Owen – very helpful and interesting to see the evolution of your thinking/views.

    As you know, much of this chimes with my work, which focuses more on accountability than on transparency. In particular, I am currently quite taken with the idea that the role of donors in enhancing governance in developing countries should not be to promote specific models of governance, but to nurture the environment of transparency and accountability out of which locally-appropriate solutions can emerge.
    See for instance:

    http://www.alanhudson.info/2011/02/governance-and-aid-effectiveness-towards-busan/

    http://www.alanhudson.info/2010/12/development-3-0-disempowering-donors/

    I’m intending to spend quite a bit of time over the next few months/years listening and learning and thinking about exactly what that might mean and how it might be done.

    I do have a quick question, but an important one I think: In your key point 6 when you talk about increased accountability to citizens/beneficiaries, do you mean donors being accountable to those citizens, or governments in developing countries being accountable to those citizens, or both?

    What’s the priority and are there any trade-offs? And how can those trade-offs be handled?

    • @Alan Good question. I was thinking that services should be accountable to beneficiaries, whether delivered by governments, the private sector or NGOs.

      As I said in the post, I think it is hard to make aid directly accountable to beneficiaries, because in the end aid must be accountable to the people who pay for it. But since the people who pay for it are in fact concerned about the welfare of the beneficiaries, we can close the loop by providing information from the intended beneficiaries which enables the people who pay for aid to demand better performance from the organisations who manage it on their behalf.

      Owen

  • Thanks for your response Owen. That sounds reasonably clear. Has parallels I guess with discussions in the UK as to how accountability will work in a Big Society …

    On a slightly different note, I’ve just been re-reading the excellent Till Bruckner article that Owen mentions and I think it bears a bit of emphasis, not least because it puts rather more forcefully the very important point that you were making Owen in distinguishing between transparency as not zero-sum and accountability as potentially zero-sum.

    [I have in the past been annoyed at some transparency-enthusiasts when they have appeared to neglect the fact that transparency and still more accountability, have political dimensions]

    Bruckner says: –

    “The world of donor speak is a happy world in which donors, NGOs, host governments, parliamentarians and a myriad of interest groups are all united in the single-handed pursuit of global poverty reduction. The real world is different. Accountability is power. Making an aid programme more accountable to one stakeholder will make it less responsive to the demands of rival stakeholders with competing expectations. More accountability does not always lead to win-win outcomes.”

    It’s well worth a read.

    When we’re talking about multiple accountabilities and trade-offs, I wonder whether it would be more useful/honest to use the words politics and power, rather than/as well as talking about games that are not zero sum and games that might be zero sum. Amongst other things, it would be good practice for talking to the people who pay for aid.

    More constructively and to build a bridge to thinking about donors’ role in enhancing governance, the point seems to be that if different stakeholders are interested in different results, or even have different ideas about how best to achieve the same results (perhaps because some of them – donors? – don’t understand the local context very well), it will not be at all straightforward to align muliple competing accountabilities.

    Can someone remind me or point me to something which answers: how does cash-on-delivery aid claim to align accountabilities (or avoid the challenge), and does/would it?

    • @Alan

      Thanks. I agree that Till’s article is a useful reminder that accountability is about politics and power. (I assume you are not thinking of me when you say people avoid these terms – I write about them all the time.)

      But I’m not sure where that caution takes us, in practice; other than to say that we should try to make sure that moves towards transparency are of a kind which builds the kind of accountability we want to see more of, and do not entrench existing power asymmetries. I am concerned that talking about the fact that accountability is all very complicated is a way of making an excuse for not moving as far or as fast as we should on transparency. (I’m sure that is not what you, or Till, intends; but donors do seize on this argument about complexity and use it to throw sand in the face of transparency advocates.) In other words, once again, don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.

      The point about politics is real; and there are trade-offs in accountability. But I think that reinforces the view (which I also hold for other reasons) that transparency should be as detailed and comprehensive as possible. It is the vested interests who benefit most from secrecy. Greater transparency alone will not change politics and power relationships, but it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which maximum transparency won’t help, rather than hinder, the least powerful.

      Owen

  • Hi Owen,

    Thanks for this great overview. I’m 100% with you on the need for donors (and the wider aid industry) to clean up its act before lecturing others. I’m also optimistic that people in developing counties can put this information to good use. Isn’t that what the recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East tell us? I despair when elites suggest that some how people aren’t ready for more openness.

    One minor quibble: although I cannot speak at all for the situation with regards to clinic building in Malawi, I’ve come across the ignorance complaint from recipient governments before, and think it is somewhat dubious. In the natural resource sector, at least, most if not all NGOs make the effort to liaise with government. Any data or report they ask for we send them. That the government then does not have the data to hand is their fault not ours, and is related to chronic data mismanagement (a barrier that sooner or later the aid transparency will presumably smack into head-on), misaligned incentives etc etc. However, I do understand these problems are much greater in other sectors – especially health where there is much more DIY aid – and so perhaps the blame for this should be shared.

    Unfortunately we are far too low down the food chain to initiate anything comprehensive, but if initiatives such as Aid Info were to provide a framework into which we could report standardised results and budgets we, and I suspect many other NGOs (though perhaps not a majority?), would be delighted to cooperate. Interestingly this might imply a certain harmonisation of budget controls and procedures which might make our life a bit easier! Do you think something like this might at some point emerge from the push for aid transparency?

    MJ

    • @MJ

      Thanks. You are pre-empting my forthcoming blog post on what is happening, but the good news is that a data standard HAS been agreed by donors, partner countries and civil society representatives. So there is a framework (the details are here) into which you, and other NGOs who want to, can report.

      Some donors are going to make it a requirement that NGOs which receive money from them will have to comply with this standard.

      So you are exactly right: the logical conclusion of all this is harmonised framework and that is what is now emerging.

      all the best
      Owen

  • Owen,

    Comprehensive, passionate and rational. Many in the aid world are saddled with traditional thinking modes and fail to recognize the network effects of machine-readable transparency aid information. It’s hard for them to conceptualize given the cause-effect/ROI/”value for money” paradigms.

    A lot of the technical aid issues may be resolved thanks to IATI.

    1.Aid is “fungible” – aid leakage will be reduced through traceability and auditability.
    2.“value for money” aid reporting does not improve aid – the ceremony of reporting to donors follows what donors believe to be effective measurements. When aid execution and outcomes can be measured in aggregate, effective metrics will emerge.
    3.Low support for foreign aid in developed countries – no wonder, there are no established and effective ways to track aid and determine effectiveness, so foreign aid is a convenient political crutch.
    4.High aid transaction cost – IATI can reduce the burden of reporting to a single standard instead of multiple standards and can be automated – including from donor financial system through government financial systems (which I’ve written about at http://www.freebalance.com/blog/?p=1598)

    Doug

    • @Doug – Thanks. I think it is extremely inspiring that Freebalance will be able to use the IATI standard automatically to transfer information from donor financial systems into government financial systems (and vice versa). That seems a good example of how information is most useful and powerful when it is presented to users in context (rather than separately in a PDF file on a donor website).

      I hope my headstone says “passionate and rational”.

      Owen

  • This is an inspiring piece of work, and it made me wonder, are the basic principles not applicable to all Government operations, and, for that matter, to all good corporate operations, whether for good causes or not?

    The Government contracts to build schools, improve roads, provide software infrastructures and so on, they all end up with only a little going on the cost of the final project and most on intermediary agencies, consultancies and subcontracting fees. But big companies are the same. A friend said he knew it was time to leave when he was made to fill in a requisition form for a pencil. This is the result of the application of evidence based systems being driven by people who have no interest in what real evidence is or who have a vested interest in generating false evidence. Transparency only needs to ensure that all people can see how the intent relates to the outcome, this is not about blame, this is just about, did you get the job done?

    Good luck!

  • Thanks for another terrific blog, Owen: gold dust – first hand, super well informed reflection from three years at the coal face.

    I couldn’t agree more about transparency improving performance. It feels to me part of a battle to be won at the highest level – providing the most senior decision makers with different ways of thinking about aid, so they are more likely to make good decisions about how their organisations can contribute most to other people’s efforts.

    Until we move away from the idea that “we can solve their problems”, we’ll be swimming against the tide. I wrote about this in relation to NGOs at http://www.ngoperformance.org which includes ideas about what else we need alongside transparency, particularly feedback systems, which I think we’ve agreed about before.

    It feels relevant to Alan’s question on Cash on Delivery. There’s a real head of steam about this in the UK government, which is likely to keep the pressure on DFID – e.g. the new No. 10 Head of Policy Development Paul Kirby’s report “Payment for Success” (published by KPMG). Read it and gasp.

    Back in aid, we urgently need new and better ways of measuring ‘results’ – which could possibly be done on a sector basis (e.g. look at microfinance) – and could potentially include real citizen feedback. ‘Who measures success?’ is THE crucial question. How are we answering it?

  • without tansparency there is no transformation

  • Congratulations on The BOB’s nomination. Last year, our blog was awarded the Best Blog in Spanish Award, and the truth, the award ceremony is an event that will always remain a happy memory in our lives.
    Congratulations for your good work and good luck !
    Greetings.

  • As part of the World Bank – IMF Spring Meetings, we would like to invite you to a session on “Democratizing Development through Open Data” organized by the World Bank and AidInfo. Open Data and innovative visualization such as the Mapping for Results Initiative are a powerful tool for civil society organizations and citizens. These new approaches can increase government responsiveness, transform the way public services are delivered to citizens, and enhance transparency and accountability of development assistance. Open data combined with social media and new technologies have the potential to empower citizens to communicate directly with governments and service providers. The event will take place on:
    Friday, April 15, 2011, 12:15-2:00 pm,
    Please join us to the event live online:
    http://wbi.worldbank.org/wbi/event/democratizing-development

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