When it comes to aid, transparency and accountability are more than just fashionable terminology meant for grandiloquent discourses and dense research papers. It’s commonly accepted that access to clear and timely information is critical for improving the effectiveness of aid and its impact on the ground. However, recent debates on NGO transparency (or rather the lack of it) raise questions about what actually constitutes accountability, and what are its boundaries or how to balance the need for accountability with the mandate for assisting those is need.
Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) has recently published a report on the Transparency of Relief Organizations Responding to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. In a nutshell the report states that though many organisations were actively soliciting donations after the disaster, few were sharing regular, factual details of their work, such as how many people were served, where, how, etc. According to the report, this hindered coordination between organisations and also prevented donors from focusing donations on groups that had the greatest capacity to deliver. “It is infuriating that so many groups continue to violate the public trust with so much cash-on-hand donated to alleviate suffering on the ground. Shouldn’t we expect more from groups that are raising hundreds of millions of dollars from a public asked to generously donate, immediately after the earthquake?” said Ben Smilowitz, DAP Executive Director. The DAP openly criticises international NGOs for using large, three-month or six-month aggregate numbers to demonstrate the impact of their work, when yet they continue to fail to reveal the numbers representing the impact of their daily activities, on a daily basis. One can wonder how a daily account of activities can be, in any way, material to proving either the effectiveness or efficiency of given organisations work (NGO or otherwise), or how providing this sort of information actually constitutes an evidence of alliance with any accountability or transparency principles.
The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test guest post by Till Bruckner on the Aidwatchers blog is yet another example of recent pieces of research questioning delivery agencies’ transparency and has unleashed a wave of reactions from both the NGO community and the aid transparency community (see aidinfo blog on What is meaningful transparency for NGOs?). Another blogger, Francis Bacon, described his attempt to obtain, two years in a row, information on detailed project expenditure from eight large international NGOs and NGO groupings. His requests were either ignored or received an indication to search the information in the organisations’ annual reports. The author openly questions what the point of NGOs signing the INGO Commitment to Accountability Charter is if “they won’t answer a simple query about spending”.
But are all these information queries really such a simple issue? I do not think so. Delivery agencies – NGOs, Red Cross and Red Crescent or UN organisations – have to deal with multiple tasks at any given time: they assess humanitarian situations; follow political developments in donor and recipient countries; analyse global trends such as climate change, epidemic threats, food and financial crisis, etc; they design operational plans, recruit staff, raise funds, liaise with other humanitarian and development actors, advocate for better aid, negotiate access to beneficiaries, write technical and financial reports for their donors, receive external auditors and evaluators who will assess their performance on the basis of the tens or hundreds of contracts, agreements, codes of conduct and best practice guidelines they have adhered to; and, moreover, they try to figure out how better respond to the ever increasing needs while competing for receding financial resources. I am sure that there must be exceptions to the rule, but in general, I do not believe that aid organisations are cynical about transparency and accountability to their donors (private or public), or that they must have something to hide if they do not provide every single piece of financial information that any member of the public requests.
In the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, such as the earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital and virtually erased many of its national institutions and aid structures, aid organisations were struggling to reach affected people while dealing with all the financial, logistical and technical challenges that typically arise in these situations. Still, many of these organisations, attended coordination and information sharing meetings, helped develop consolidated appeals, contributed to situation assessments, fed into global response plans and supported real time evaluations of the relief operation. In the case of the Haiti response, 41 NGOs, members of InterAction, still managed to participate in a review of InterAction Members’ Use of Private Funds in Response to the Earthquake in Haiti. Some of these same organisations were amongst those labelled as not fully transparent by the DAP report on the Transparency of Relief Organisations Responding to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake for not responding to a satisfactory degree to the survey that must have been conducted at the same time as the InterAction review. This is just an example of how things when taken out of context and analysed in an isolated way can drive us to wrong impressions.
In my own experience, access to information from aid organisations is challenging, although, when requested under sensible terms, is generally successful. Creating a common understanding of why and how the information provided is going to be used is essential. Persistency also pays off. Nevertheless, much remains to be achieved in that field and many improvements can and must still be done. Enhanced access to real time financial information from all parts of the aid system – from donors, to aid organisations, affected governments and non-aid actors involved in development and humanitarian assistance – is an absolute necessity. Initiatives such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) are not only promoting the values of aid transparency but also working to develop a platform that will make information upload and sharing easier and more accessible for all. In the meantime, however, we must keep in mind that access to information from aid organisations has associated costs that may drive them to evaluate the cost-benefit ratio of providing individually tailored data on a case-by-case basis, or may directly prevent them from replying to every query. And we should not be too quick to label them as under-achievers just because of that.