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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.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Gilmore, Inside USAID. Inside USAID said: Till Bruckner is (partially) right, but so am I « Peace Dividend …: They do a better job of helping people than … […]

  2. Till Bruckner says:

    Dear Scott, just to let you know that I really appreciate this unfolding debate. You raise a number of issues that routinely get discussed by NGO workers in private, but that require wider and more public debate. There’s no simple answers. I will definitely pick up the threads on this in a future AidWatch posting.

  3. Scott Gilmore says:

    Till – Back at you. Also, please do get in touch so we can hook you up with our team that does economic impact research.

  4. […] Peace Dividend Trust Blog « Till Bruckner is (partially) right, but so am I […]

  5. […] blog post by Scott Gilmore, of Peace Dividend Trust, seems to me to put this dispute in a good context — giving Bruckner […]

  6. Jeffrey Silverman says:

    Sleeping in the same bed with AEI makes for strange bedfellows for a whistle blower against USAID abuses

    The underlying motivations are not crystal clear, why a lone scholar like Till Bruckner, accruing a long list of enemies who label him a whistle blower with an axe to grind against USAID lack of even basic transparency. Till Bruckner, whose name cannot pull up much at all on Google unrelated to this new polemic emerging circa April 2010, sprang out of nowhere to bemoan the lack of transparency that may be hiding corruption in USAID and their nongovernmental organization affiliates, including their religious aid networks, would pick the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine, THE AMERICAN, to lead the armada as a flagship into the murky waters of investigating the similarties between World Food Program and USAID, which may itself today have grown to be a bloated behemoth of intelligence affiliates.

    The AEI is well known and notorious among its detractors for being the birthplace of hard core neo convervatism, which has been a frightful infestation of American democratic ideals and foreign policy for over 20 years now.

    You may be thinking by now that I am a blind supporter of USAID and the black clouds of legitimate and illegitimate NGOs swarming around USAID and the Republic of Georgia like flies. On the contrary, I have been a long time investigative reporter dredging up such information for public disclosure for a few decades here in the Caucasus.

    The author’s motivations portrayed by some as purely PhD research is a mouthful to chew on and not choke. One can simply Google his mentors, allies, and affiliations and see that there is enough envy and jealousy of a vast rival power network to make an overflowing Georgian ‘supra’ table seem meager. USAID now eclipses the former glory of AEI and their tangled web of patronages.

    Something akin to the legendary rivalry between the Templars and the Hospitallers during the Crusades is going on here, and I don’t think i am the only muckracking hillbilly in these here hills that has noticed so effortlessly, do you?

    And I question if the poor and needy of our planet, and their even more unfortunate brothers and sisters living under bloody repression, who truly need humanitarian aid and development assistance, would be impressed by this infighting and feuding squabble between two juggernauts who in the end will lay out very little for the poor themselves, and leave the recipients questioning the sincerity of the benefits coming from “the American People”. Remember Katrina and Ward 9? Charity starts at home, as well as transparency.

    I have to give Mr. Bruckner credit for coining one of the pithiest sentences i have read in a very long time, “Secrecy and charity make for strange bedfellows.”

    I absolutely agree, and whistle blowing against abuses of U.S. monies exemplified by USAID projects, makes strange bedfellows for AEI.

    Jeffrey Silverman,
    Freelance journalist and former Editor of Georgian Times, 18 years resident of Georgia, who has investigated corruption within USAID in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, in the last ten years.

  7. […] Scott came back, saying that Till was partially right. Given his research question, Till was right to ask for this budget information (though Scott still does not think it would be very useful for combating corruption). But Scott continues to believe that NGOs are entitled to preserve some secrecy about the details of their work so that they can compete for projects. […]

  8. Dear Scott, just to let you know that I really appreciate this unfolding debate. You raise a number of issues that routinely get discussed by NGO workers in private, but that require wider and more public debate. There’s no simple answers. I will definitely pick up the threads on this in a future AidWatch posting.

  9. Dear Scott, just to let you know that I really appreciate this unfolding debate. You raise a number of issues that routinely get discussed by NGO workers in private, but that require wider and more public debate. There’s no simple answers. I will definitely pick up the threads on this in a future AidWatch posting.

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