“This money is being raised in our name; for our country. We should know how it is being spent.”
These are strong words from a Bangladeshi NGO and they’re hard to refute. It’s also hard to refute that aid does do a lot of good; in Ethiopia it is strengthening the country’s tax collection systems, in Syria it is providing front line emergency food and nutritional support to millions of men, women and children, and in Nigeria it is supporting the training of female health workers in some of the world’s poorest communities. But then we know that because we work in this space, and we have access to vast amounts of information about aid flows and the projects it funds.
So where does the money go?
Put yourself in the shoes of a citizen in a country receiving aid who perhaps doesn’t have access to the same information; whether you’re a subsistence farmer in Cambodia, a parent in Sierra Leone amidst the Ebola outbreak or a bystander in the Yemeni civil war. From the headlines you understand that your country is receiving significant amounts of assistance, billions perhaps. Yet you’re not necessarily seeing improvements to your own situation, nor any details of where this money is being spent, on what, and by whom. So you ask yourself, where does the money go?
In the absence of information, people often fill in the blanks themselves.
In Ghana, we met an outraged activist who alleged that his government was under-reporting a World Bank project by two thirds and was pocketing the difference. When we found the project on d-Portal it demonstrated, to his surprise, that the figures published by the World Bank matched what the government was reporting. “I guess I was wrong”, was how he ended the conversation. Just like that, perhaps a little bit of trust in his own government was restored.
We have since encountered many citizens and activists who are seeking answers on aid spending. Just recently, we spoke with Yemeni activists who have launched the #whereisthemoney and #YemenNGOBlackHole campaign; already amassing over 6,500 signatures on an online petition. Their demands? More information. Specifically, (1) audited financial reports (2) technical implementation reports and (3) monitoring and evaluation reports. There’s no shortage of reasons why; such as wanting better targeted aid and tackling alleged corruption, to conspiracies that the UN and others are supporting the rebels — and that greater transparency may put a stop to that. Whatever the truth, in a complex and sensitive environment like Yemen, an absence of transparency can breed irreparable distrust. In such circumstances, truth is superseded by perception.
Recent reports from the Philippines, for example, state that the public perception that government officials pocketed billions of aid intended for victims of super typhoon Yolanda persist because of government failures to keep communities and other stakeholders updated on what was happening and the recovery challenges.
The implications of this sort of public distrust in aid are hard to measure. However, the principle of “acceptance” is frequently the first strategy in ensuring the safety of INGO staff. With this, any allegations, misunderstandings or even conspiracies about the intentions of INGOs could serve to undermine their work and make it harder, or frankly more dangerous, for organisations to provide assistance. Equally, concerns about the misuse of aid funds by national governments, whether grounded in truth or not, can erode trust and only hamper a society’s efforts to bounce back after a crisis.
The implementation challenge
Making the case for transparency is only the first step on a long journey. The real challenge is understanding how to implement transparency in a way which means information is simultaneously useful, usable and used – and which is respectful to the valid concerns of international partners, particularly in the humanitarian sector.
Watch this space to learn more about our ongoing research in the humanitarian sector. We’ll be trying to unpack the information needs of local and national actors, as well as the complexities of how and when information can be shared and how to address the inherent tensions between ‘do no harm’ and ‘transparency’.