Useful Transparency vs Meaningless Paper Chasing
I’ve been called out by the blogger Transparency Extremist, in response to yesterday’s post on aid transparency and what matters.
For those of you keeping score at home, Till Bruckner from the University of Bristol lamented that USAID, World Vision, and others refused to provide uncensored budget documents for several aid projects operating in Georgia. Famed aid reform guru Bill Easterly echoed this umbrage in the Wall Street Journal. I then cried foul and argued that transparent budgets aren’t very useful or meaningful. Which is when Transparency Extremist waded in and eloquently and simply pointed out “…he is wrong.”
Now, a couple of my more carefully followed personal rules are:
- Never start an argument where you appear to take the side against peace, puppy dogs, Justin Bieber, or transparency, and
- Never argue with someone who calls himself “Jim-Bob”, “The Punisher” or “The Extremist”
Nonetheless, I am going to throw caution to the wind and respond to the critiques in the order that they were raised.
Point: “….everything the taxpayer funds should be transparent.”
Counterpoint: In an ideal thought experiment, yes. But in reality, this doesn’t happen for a variety of good reasons. Consider your neighbor, the postman. You don’t know his income or the fact that his wages are garnished for child support. As a taxpayer, you are paying his salary, but for valid personal reasons you aren’t entitled to know exactly how much. The FBI office in Karachi. You don’t know how much they just spent on reinforcing the compound wall. You paid for it, but if this was public information then a car bomber would realize it’s actually 3 feet thick and he’d need to double up on the fertilizer. And back to those aid contract budgets. One of the basic elements of open competitive bidding is ensuring that other competitors don’t know the precise financial details of other bids. Judging from your site, you believe this is a travesty. I am not going to argue with you about the ethical philosophy underpinning the modern world’s consensus that this is necessary to ensure fair bidding. But I am going to insist that this consensus is a reality and asking aid NGOs to abandon it first is asking too much from organizations that have more pressing issues to worry about.
Point: “Budgets aren’t the meat; what we need to see are the actuals. And not just the agency’s actuals, but also those of the aid recipients. If we could see both, we wouldn’t need the audits.”
Counterpoint: If your goal is to use transparency to prevent or stop corruption, actuals are just as meaningless as budgets. People with their hand in the till cover their tracks. If money is being siphoned off to the local government or one of the employees, the budgets vs actuals do not include a line that states “Bribery” or “Protection Money”. At the very best they will be listed as “Administrative costs” or “Security costs”. Open books won’t magically reveal the corruption. You need deep, expensive, exhaustive audits, and even then you will be stymied by the fact that in the places where these projects operate receipts are not given and paper trails simply don’t exist.
Point: “…the aim of transparency in the process is to help ensure that we do get the impact. Lack of transparency isn’t the only thing stopping the schools being built, but it’s one of them.”
Counterpoint: I can agree with that last line, a lack of transparency is contributing to the lack of impact. But you and I are shining our “transparency” spotlights on two different parts of the process. You want to see if the NGOs spent 5% on bricks or 50%. I want to know if they actually built any schools. As simple as that sounds, it is extremely difficult to find out from government donors what the actual deliverables were. And if you think counting schools is hard, wait until you try and figure out what the “governance” projects actually did.
Point: “….transparency must be universal and compulsory. It’s not enough for a few high-minded NGOs to open their books, if the competition doesn’t. This isn’t about WorldVision, it’s about USAID – which should make it a condition of every contract that the budgets and the actuals are published. Not an aspiration, but a condition. Not released under an FOI request, but published.”
Counterpoint: Amen. And free chocolate bunnies for all. Zero calorie chocolate bunnies, mind you. I was doing sprint intervals this morning before work and I still feel like vomiting. (The following clip of unnecessary sarcasm is brought to you entirely in Spanish.)
So, to recap my rather hurried post yesterday:
- This is not a debate about transparency vs secrecy. It’s about meaningful transparency vs useless paper chasing.
- If the goal is to make aid more effective, to save more lives, feed more people, build more schools, we need transparent results, not process.
- If the goal is to weed out corruption, open budgets and uncensored actuals are not going to point a red blinking arrow to the evil-doers.