It seems to me that in the emotional conversation about honesty we’ve somehow confused it with transparency. We have also garbled our terms around the levels at which those two things need to happen, namely the individual aid-worker as opposed to the NGO, the INGO or the Aid Industry, writ large.
Honesty is easy. As a matter of principle, we should always tell the truth. And in my own experience thus far, most I/NGOs do. And even when there is a statement, often from a PR or marketing department, that is found to be incorrect – again, in my experience – nearly all are very quick to correct it.
In my opinion, the real honesty issue in the aid world right now is at the level of the individual aid worker and donor. Honesty about motivations; honesty about expectations; honesty about one’s own personal contribution; honesty about one’s own insecurities, prejudices, ethnocentrism, sexism… and a willingness to honestly evaluate how those affect and color the work that we do. Not looking for more melancholy self-flagellation. Just looking for more (as in continued) honest reflection about how to do more effective, more efficient aid work.
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I’m not sure that I feel the same way about transparency. I think there are some very good reasons why we do not voluntarily disclose everything to just anyone. I think we have to ask ourselves, first, whether or not voluntary full disclosure, available publicly to anyone will necessarily result in more effective, more efficient aid.
And here, I think the answer is an emphatic “no.” It will not result in more effective, more efficient aid. On more than one occasion I have seen unfiltered program performance and financial data in the hands of people not trained to understand it be completely misunderstood. The results in all cases amounted to long, costly and tedious distractions for my employer at the time. The amount of staff time and level of effort expended in one instance to placate a self-righteous reporter who failed to properly understand the meaning of the term “audit” was immense and in the end lowered program quality. In another instance, the level of effort required to convince a wealthy but clueless supporter that a FAX machine for the field office (this was in the days before email) was a reasonable cost to incur under a “miscellaneous office equipment” line item, when we costed it out, was more expensive than the FAX machine that had caused the uproar to begin with. In both instances (and a great many others) transparency unaccompanied by discreet selection or filtering of information led to diminished effectiveness and efficiency.
I do not think that total voluntary transparency is either necessary, or good, or even feasible. We have to filter what information goes to whom.
Here’s how I would see the basic minimums:
- Beneficiaries/recipients of aid: We should be voluntary explicit with our beneficiaries about who we are (we as individuals, we as aid organizations), who our donors are, what we plan to do/are doing in their communities, any plans for extension, expansion, downsizing, close-out and the basis for all of those decisions. In short, we need to tell them everything we can which enables them to determine up front whether or not they want us or our project in their community, the basis for any programmatic or administrative decisions which affect them, our perception of how the project is going/has gone (and solicit their feedback, although this is now “accountability”, rather than “transparency”).
- Donors: Most institutional donors (USAID, AusAID, E.C., DFID, JICA, the Gates Foundation…) have extensive and stringent requirements about what information we must share with them, both about the specific programs that they fund, about our partners, and about our own organizations. For smaller, less formal donors, we need to be at a minimum transparent about how we plan to spend their money (proposal, logframe + budget); how we calculate costs (budget narrative); cost ratios (the proportion of overhead compared with programs and how we define each, the amount and proportion of GIK in our budgets); any implementation issues that we anticipate a priori; implementation issues mid-stream; the results of any audits or evaluations that are performed on their project as well as evaluations or audits performed on our overall program in-country during the life of their project; anything at all that they ask about our organization’s philosophical roots or overall strategic intent.
- Our colleagues, employees, our partners. Who we are, our organizational raison d’etre, our specific intentions in a given place at a given time. We need to be voluntarily transparent about financial issues that affect them directly (I’m not so sure the full disclosure of salary structure is either necessary or good. The decision to share an employee’s salary should belong to that employee). We need to be voluntarily transparent about decisions which affect them directly or indirectly, as well as the basis for those decisions.
Although I strongly believe that more and better development education is needed for the public at large in North America (and probably other parts of the world as well), I do not think that full disclosure either openly or even on request is necessary or even necessarily good. I cannot imagine handing over an internal evaluation document to a random citizen who walks in off the street asking to see it (it does happen). Similarly, I think that any of us would be perfectly justified in refusing the request of a beneficiary who walks into a country office wanting to have a look at, say, the minutes of the most recent management committee meeting.
Honesty is a given. We don’t (or shouldn’t) lie. To anyone.
But transparency requires some wise and careful decisions made around who has a legitimate need / right to know what, with a view specifically to doing more effective, more efficient aid in the communities where we work.