Till Bruckner is (partially) right, but so am I
Till Bruckner came back to me with a very thoughtful response at AidWatchers. In reading it, I found myself agreeing with much he said. This is because I am not suggesting he is wrong to want this type of data for economic research. But his post started a debate about using budget transparency for combating corruption and improving impact, and in this context I believe there are lower hanging fruits to be picked.
I do agree with Till that taxpayers should at least know the total amount of an aid contract. It is a surprise to me that this basic information is not being shared. I do maintain, however, that like it or not the details of operational budgets have a proprietary value and sharing them distorts the level playing field of a contract tendering process, even after the contract is won (because a similar tender will come up elsewhere or later on).
I also agree (wholeheartedly!) with Till’s objective of measuring local economic impact. Hell, PDT invented that type of analysis with the groundbreaking Economic Impact of Peacekeeping study we did for the United Nations, and later work we’ve done in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And if there is anyway we can help you, or if you are interested in expanding your research, please contact me directly. But I was critiquing that form of transparency as a meaningful tool for preventing corruption. And as I mentioned in a response to Transparency Extremist, even audited financials won’t point a signpost to absconded funds.
And I also agree with Till’s analysis of the perceptions and definition of “corruption” among locals, which deserves to be quoted in full:
The aid industry has created a system that conveniently defines corruption so that expats can live a good life within the rules, whereas locals on far smaller salaries and with larger family commitments frequently get branded as corrupt for breaking these rules. In my experience, Afghan villagers do not share this narrow legalistic definition of corruption. When a project fails to deliver benefits to the poor, and the expat project manager at the same time lives a life of (locally) unimaginable luxury on designated poverty alleviation funds, villagers logically conclude that the project is failing due to corruption: instead of helping them as originally promised, the NGO is only helping itself. NGOs’ arrogant attitude – “we’re accountable by our own standards so we don’t need to tell you where the money goes” – does little to change this perception.
But I take issue with Till’s suggestion that “…many private donors would be dismayed to learn that some charities seem to orient their practices around the competition for government contracts.” This, unfortunate as it may seem, is a fact of life for most NGOs. World Vision, for example, has a mission to do good and help people and they achieve that mission. They do a better job of helping people than any of the for-profit beltway bandits who thrive off USAID funding. But it is a fact of life that unilaterally opening up their budgets would allow CarpetBagger Inc to ensure next year they under-bid WorldVision by 2% on the next USAID tender. And, judging from past performance, CarpetBagger Inc will also under-deliver. WorldVision should not be maligned for competing for government contracts. They have to do it to deliver on their mission of helping people.
To sum up, I support your efforts to get budget data for economic analysis matters. In the past, when we did the exact same type of study, USAID provided the numbers to us with a non-disclosure clause. We could publish the aggregate data, but not the specific budget details (and I’d be happy to share the protocols we developed to do that). But I still insist on the following points within the context of a debate about transparency as a tool for stopping corruption or improving project impact (not within the context of transparency as a tool of economic research):
- If the goal is to make aid more effective, to save more lives, feed more people, build more schools, transparent results are more badly needed than transparent 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.
So, Till, we be cool? (As the kids say.) Give us a ring. We should be collaborating on that research.