Waylaid Dialectic

June 24, 2010

Aid Transparency: are we there yet?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:16 pm
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Aidinfo, Aiddata, the OECD, the World Bank…I think it’s fair to say that the world of aid is more transparent than it used to be. Nowhere enough but, via the internet at least, a little bit of light is being let in. Taxpayers in developing countries (the ultimate donors) can, if they wish, now avail themselves of more and more information about how the aid they give is put to use. Probably not many of them will ever do this – but the information is still fuel for advocates and advocacy groups.

All this is good. But there is one great big missing link in the aid transparency chain as it currently stands: availability of aid data to the citizens of countries that receive aid.

As far as I’m aware* very few donors give much thought to propagating information on their aid in a way that’s accessible to people in developing countries. Yeah sure the information’s on the internet if you look. But where it really needs to be is on every radio station and in every newspaper in places where it’s spent.

This strikes me as something that would be incredibly easy to do (or, at least, incredibly easy relative to the efforts already put into improving governance in developing countries). Donors in a country could coordinate to get the information together (and if they can’t coordinate to do this, there really is no hope for aid) and then fund the information’s dissemination. Ads in papers, broadcasts on TV and radio.

It would be a way of strengthening demand for better governance. People ain’t dumb, and if they find out their health ministry is getting $X million a year and delivering very little, hard questions will be asked**.

It would be a way of strengthening civil society too. Information is oxygen for campaigning groups; every bit as much as money. So let them have it.

What I’m saying here is hardly new, Nicolas van de Walle made a case for something similar in Overcoming Stagnation in Aid-Dependent Countries (2005) and Mead Over makes a compelling case for it at CGD:

Why don’t the people on the ground, from whom the money is actually stolen, realize it’s missing? As Dirce and Freddie eloquently testified on the panel on Monday, this is partly the donors’ fault! Due to almost complete obfuscation of the amounts donors spend in country and of the amounts that should go through various channels to various destinations for various purposes, the local citizens have no way of telling whether the money has been stolen before it gets to them. Even professional analysts such as Dirce, Freddie and the HIV/AIDS Monitor’s Zambian collaborator, Caesar Cheelo, could not get access to these numbers, despite repeated, persistent trips to visit the donors and the government.

Local public disclosure might be part of the solution. Freddie Ssengooba cited an experiment that was conducted in the Ugandan education sector which showed that simply posting each school year on the outside of a local school the money and supplies that school has been budgeted to receive was enough to dramatically reduce the leakage of school funds. The paper by Reinikka and Svenson analyzing this experiment was published in 2004 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics here (gated) but is available in several places referenced at the back of this 2007 CGD working paper (ungated). Freddie said that this practice is not yet followed in Uganda in the health sector and suggested that such a practice, combined with the timely publication of government and donor budgets, would empower the people of Uganda, through journalists and through researchers like the HIV/AIDS Monitor’s three collaborators, to provide checks and balances against corruption.

It’s not new; but it’s also not happening. Donors, what are you waiting for?

* Bearing in mind that my awareness doesn’t travel that far. So maybe someone (the Scandinavians or DFID??) is already doing this. I hope so.

** Which isn’t to say that they’re not already being asked. But more info, more questions. And the more questions the merrier.

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