Today, transparency is thought to be as essential for effective development as gender equality or local ownership. Without transparency, real accountability is impossible. Without accountability, it is difficult to achieve meaningful, lasting results. At least rhetorically, both donors and civil societyhave recognized this, identifying transparency as a key principle in international agreements on aid effectiveness. It is also the main motivation behind the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which seeks to ensure that anyone, anywhere can access information on how much aid is going where, for what purpose, and with what results.
The U.S. government has embraced this agenda. On his first day in office, President Obama signed an executive order calling for more open government. Early on in his term, USAID Administrator Raj Shah said USAID would “embrace the concept of extreme transparency…and seek to set a standard on transparency for the field of development.” The State Department’s work on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and announcement that the U.S. government would join IATI are further signs of a commitment to transparency.
InterAction and its members praise the U.S. government for these efforts to make information on its foreign aid spending more accessible. We know that, despite advances in technology that have made collecting and sharing large amounts of information easier and cheaper, getting data – and particularly detailed project data – from the more than 20 U.S. agencies involved in foreign aid is no simple task.
Still, more than two years after Dr. Shah promised extreme transparency and the launch of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, it is fair to ask whether the U.S. government is living up to this commitment. We, and others in our community, think the answer is not yet.
Becoming a transparent or open organization is about more than getting data on a website. It requires a change in culture, from one in which people’s first instinct is to hold onto information to one in which the default is to share it as a norm and not as an exception. For such a change to take place, those leading the U.S. government’s work on transparency need to make sure that everyone understands the value they place on transparency and why it matters for any development effectiveness agenda.
Transparency lies at the heart of our concept of empowered development actors. Initiatives such as theOpen Government Partnership and Making All Voices Count – which the U.S. government played a central role in establishing – suggest that donors also understand the potential that greater access to information has for improving people’s lives. Information is power, and a public good that should not be owned by any donor, government or NGO.
InterAction believes that being open is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Lack of information about who is doing what where makes it less likely that aid will go to the areas and people that need it most, and more likely to result in duplication of efforts. It also makes partnerships and collaboration, so essential to solving today’s complex challenges, much more difficult.
InterAction’s experience with NGO Aid Map, an initiative to collect information on the work of our more than 180 members and make it publicly available, means that we understand the challenges of transparency well. Greater transparency requires time and money, both of which can be hard to justify when there are so many other issues that require attention and when we are continuously being asked to do more with less. More importantly, however, it requires courage and trust, as well as a willingness to give up some control. If individuals or organizations fear being punished as a result of the information they make available, progress will be slow.
Our rhetoric has finally embraced the concept of transparency but adapting our donor culture so it releases relevant public data and quickly responds to public requests for data has quite a ways to go. This is precisely why political will and strong leadership founded on public action is so important.