Transparent, yes. But transparent what?
UPDATE: I respond to critics of this post here (with some good examples, a little bit of mild sarcasm, and the Simpsons)
The issue is this. Aid Watchers has a guest blog up today, by Till Bruckner of University of Bristol. In it, he laments the unwillingness of USAID and some of its partner NGOs to release uncensored budget details from projects in Georgia. What he got, after a lengthy wait, was a lot of this:
So Till concludes:
“…NGOs have publicly committed themselves to transparency and accountability, but their actions show that their interpretations of what this entails in practice differ widely. For example, World Vision is a full member of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, but still asked USAID to hide all of its budget information apart from the bottom line. “
The commenters grab their pitchforks, too. Inayet H. wrote:
“Thank you for your investigation into NGO’s corruption and lack of transparency. I must say that in Afghanistan the situation of International NGO’s corruption & fraud is criminal. Another reason why the Taliban are winning.”
And in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Prof. Easterly laments this stonewalling and links it to Afghan’s fading support for the international efforts there and the fact that a:
“U.N. survey taken in January found that 52% of Afghans believe aid organizations “are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.”
I’ve got phone calls and meetings scheduled every 15 minutes today, so I’m going to keep this short.
[NOTE: After some raised eyebrows (see comments below) I would like to point out that point #1 uses the literary device “hyperbole”. Used for comical, ironic or dramatic effect. For the more literal minded, replace that sentence with: “I am not concerned if World Vision spends 6.5% or 7.2% on staff overheads”]
- When people like me demand transparency and say “We want to know where the money went.”, I think we actually mean “We want to know what the money did.” In this case, I really don’t care if World Vision blew 90% of their budget on strippers and Grey Goose vodka. What I want to know is what did they deliver? What changed on the ground? How many people were helped? I want transparent impact. I couldn’t care less about transparent budgets.
- Uncensored budgets aren’t going to help too much on corruption. Even the best forensic accountant couldn’t look at that budget and tell you if the money was spent on what it says it was. Only an audit can do that, and even then the audit has to be damn good. You want to keep everyone’s nose clean? Ask for the audit results, not the budgets.
- I can assure you that the Taliban are winning for reasons other than you don’t know how much an NGO spent on office rent and staff salaries. Likewise, I am pretty sure that if 52% of Afghans believe aid is corrupt, it’s not because they haven’t seen the audited statements. It’s because they haven’t seen the schools, roads, clinics, and irrigation ditches. Again, they are upset about impact, not process.
- And finally, from someone who has been screwed over by more than one beltway bandit, those USAID budgets were for tendered and competitive contracts. If those NGOs share them with the for-profit vultures who eat up most of the aid spending, it will pretty much ensure they get outbid on the next contract.
But other than that, I agree with everything Bill Easterly says. I swear.