Aid transparency. When people are interested in aid transparency it seems they’re always interested in the transparency of someone else. Donors are interested in the multilaterals. They are interested in the donors in return and often the NGOs they sometimes use to implement. These in turn are interested in the donors and the multilaterals. And the governments, the national governments responsible for overseeing all this work in their own country, are interested in the transparency of all these actors, but not, arguably, of their own spending.
Is the same to be said of humanitarian aid? Does everyone look at the other for their transparency? Or perhaps something else drives people to be less transparent about aid than they should: the imperative to save lives. Does it inhibit people’s ability to be transparent? Perhaps operational agencies are too busy saving and protecting life, in providing the basics of human dignity for distressed population to think about the transparency of what they’re doing.
If we take that to be true, what arguments can we use for humanitarian aid that is transparent from initial donation through implementing agencies to the impact in beneficiary communities?
In its simplest form the argument goes like this: humanitarian aid transparency will save lives now.
The reasons for aid transparency in general become even more important because of the urgency of the need. More transparency would mean a more efficient coordination of activities and the avoidance of duplication, presumably the reduction of administrative costs for all involved and thus an increase of the overall value to the beneficiary. It would increase the need for accountability for the delivery of humanitarian services and products and lead to an increased stake in this delivery by both government and communities. And finally, surely only by understanding fully what is happening on the ground in humanitarian crises can we begin to see what needs to be fixed in the system, so all the research and all the consideration about what to do, issues of humanitarian space and the role of national government, of better and faster delivery, all this actually needs aid transparency.
In fact perhaps humanitarian reform, despite the relative successes of pooled finances and the cluster coordination system and slightly less successful moves towards better humanitarian leadership, actually has the wrong focus. Isn’t it is an attempt to fix the system without understanding the full nature of what the system is doing? In the aftermath of a crisis or in a protracted complex emergency we still don’t know the basics: what is delivered.
That said then what exactly do we mean by the transparency of humanitarian aid?
For me there is one overall need with two overall goals. The need is to have real-time information on all aspects of humanitarian provision: who is spending what money through which actors in which parts of the affected country on what sectors, targeting which beneficiary groups. And this information would have to include what national governments and civil society groups, and what communities and even families are doing to respond to humanitarian need. The detail is absolutely essential. It should at the very least tell us about the outputs, and later, one hopes, the outcomes too. If we had this information then perhaps we would reach our two goals. Firstly we would have an aid system where we know what is happening right then and there and not three or six months later with evaluations and reviews; with up to the minute aid information we should be able to know what is happening when and where and be able to make the right decisions, prioritise some sectors and areas of the country, move resources around to make better use of them, make better appeals, request specific funds from donors to meet the identified need.
Secondly by having information on exactly what is supposed to happen collected together we would for the first time enable beneficiaries, whether the government or its people, to understand exactly what they should have received, from whom and when. We would drive accountability from a complete picture of what was promised by whom, rather than this rather piecemeal system that is reliant on those implementing agencies that actually do give opportunities for communities to give feedback, views that rarely affect what is delivered anyway.
In a sense then transparency is only part of the goal. Having tons of undigested raw information is unlikely to help many people. However if that information is properly understood and correctly packaged, it can help people make right decisions and help all stakeholders hold others to account.
But this is all fine, at least to me. What next? How do we deliver this? What do we need to do and who should be in charge? Who will drive this process, will it be top down, with the system demanding a uniform reporting system in detail for all actors, or will it come from the bottom, through the increased use of technology at community level, monitoring the implementation of promised work. Both of these perhaps. And how can we build into the delivery of humanitarian aid the fact that the full and ‘digested’ transparency of that assistance is a part of the work and not an additional, somehow external element?