Saturday, 21 August 2010

Transparency fetishes vs effective aid delivery

I have been vaguely following the blog-chatter around aid transparency. I really like this response in which Scott Gilmore deals pretty effectively with points raised by people who seem to be believe that transparency has to mean that every single penny of every aid project reported on to the public. This demand for open budgets bothers me. I feel like I've debated these people before – that they're the ones less interested in effective than in shutting down aid/welfare/state spending altogether. I feel like they’re the same people who want to shut down welfare programmes if you can't give them a detailed breakdown of how each welfare recipient used his/her grant.

As Gilmore points out, accountability is good. Humanitarian work is difficult work with a high rate of failure. Knowing what projects succeed should guide future spending. The people who are giving the money are also, very often, on a different continent, so mechanisms like monitoring data audits, technical team visits and regular financial audits are necessary to avoid graft. Equally important are projects like this one, which, with the spread of technology (particularly cellphones), should soon be able to feed anecdotal, first-hand observations from beneficiaries directly back to donors.

This is all good. When a project is implemented, I, as an interested observer or a taxpaying stakeholder, want to know how many people were fed, how many refugees were helped, how many schools were built, how these numbers compare to what was originally planned, how much money they asked for and how much it cost in the end. That allows me to get a sense of what money is being spent on and who is being helped. This information should be, and increasingly is, available. If I wanted a bigger picture, aid flows can be relatively easily tracked (in context, with the option of easy comparisons and year-on-year tracking) through projects such as AidData.

Knowing how much the foreign engineer spent on fuel to travel to a remote village is not useful information, firstly because I am not qualified to be able to comment on how that contributed to his work, secondly because I cannot possibly know enough about the real costs on the ground to know if it was excessive, and thirdly because it tells me nothing about project effectiveness. Similarly, knowing the salaries of aid workers - a common bugbear among critics - is useless without having a real sense of the market in those areas and how much it costs to convince qualified professionals to risk their lives, with none of the comforts of their home-countries, at far less than real market-value pay, to work on any given project.

It's a different world out there and concerned-citizen-in-random-first-world state, who has never had to travel with an armed guard in Somalia or avoid landmines in Angola, cannot possibly know what it really costs. Donor governments are responsible for how the taxpayers’ money is spent and they all the reports. If you don't like the way your government is spending money, don't elect them next time around. Shouting your mouth off because it costs more to travel 30km in Mozambique than it does to travel the same distance in the States is not transparency and it contributes nothing either to rooting out corruption or to improving the effectiveness of any aid projects anywhere.

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