Honesty 103: Honesty v. Transparency

23 Aug

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.

* * *

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.

14 Responses to “Honesty 103: Honesty v. Transparency”

  1. Daniela Papi 23 August, 2009 at 10:07 am #

    I thought the whole honesty thread started from your post about how people at cocktail parties tell you they gave money to XYZ organization, which is an organization you don’t think is doing good work, and you smile and nod rather than tell them the truth. This is what I thought the honesty discussion was going to be about.

    “As a matter of principle, we should always tell the truth.” Wouldn’t telling them the truth help us all do more effective aid work?

    Agreed, transparency and honesty are different. With transparency, we choose what to be open about with our own work. I agree with you that in many cases total transparency can lead to confusion, though I don’t think it would be as bad as very limited transparency. With honesty, we choose what to be honest about within the things we are knowledgeable about, our work and those around us. I agree that total honesty in a direct way might hurt the ladies’ feelings who has been donating to a corrupt or harmful cause for many years, but I don’t think that would be as bad as dis or limited honesty encouraging her behavior which is known to be harmful. Both, to an extreme, might cause potential problems or hurt feelings, but limiting both a lot, in my opinion, is worse in the long run.

    • J. 27 August, 2009 at 5:27 am #

      Hey Daniela,

      The post that you’re referring to was actually about the regulation of aid. The “honesty” theme has been alive in one way or another for some time here at Tales From the Hood (although sometimes tagged/categorized as “aid workers taking themselves too seriously” or “confession”).

      I’m not sure that I understand the question in the middle pp. of your comment (“wouldn’t telling them the truth help us all do more effective aid work?”): seems to me that we’re making the same point in different ways.

      Filtering and/or selectively sharing information is not the same thing as being dishonest. Moreover, adjusting one’s message to one’s audience is a basic communication skill.

  2. Sterling 23 August, 2009 at 12:24 pm #

    i love this post. i agree 100%. i don’t know if you’ve heard about transparency demands from university students, but it’s becoming a big hoo-ha. at NYU, for example, a group of students demanded budget transparency, an elected student to the board of directors, AND a student body to observe the budget. (check out: http://takebacknyu.com/demands/) like you said, it doesn’t increase efficiency, nor is it always productive.

    i also appreciate your 2 cents on who needs to be honest. i think many people have been writing about it, but no one has clearly made the distinction between the institutions and the individuals.

  3. c 29 September, 2009 at 1:07 am #

    J: ‘It will not result in more effective, more efficient aid.’
    Sterling: ‘it doesn’t increase efficiency, nor is it always productive’

    Since when is transparency supposed to be about creating increased *efficiency*?

    You could have a highly **efficient** aid operation (eg: drilling new boreholes at low cost, or providing food aid cheaply and trucking it like clockwork) that was ultimately pointless because it didn’t meet community expectations or demands, or fulfil a real lasting need, or create dependency and not be a sustainable approach in the longer term.

    I think the point of transparency is about *effectiveness* and the ability of [informed] external actors to have enough clarity of information to spot a dog of a program design, or a botched implementation. For beneficiaries its about having confidence that the aid agency aren’t using them to line their own pockets, or indeed those of fat foreign subcontractors, or that the project funds are being lost to bribery and corruption.

    None of these things are particularly efficient. Look at the cost of transparency in government – when I worked for a ministry back home in oz, each year the agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of staff time in preparing for senate inquiries and budget committees. Efficient use of time? No. What the ministry was focused on doing as core business? No. Expensive? Yes. Absolutely necessary for confidence in the system? Yes.

    Transparency isn’t about efficiency. It’s about confidence in the agency and/or system, and a component or mechanism (one amongst many) toward accountability. I agree with you that it can reach absurd levels when donors get obsessed with minutae like fax machines though. Or when a donor agency expects detailed textual line by line justifications of every item in a budget, down to the ones that are <$5k, on a $1m grant. If you had any real confidence they had the capacity to do genuine cost effectiveness comparisons across agencies, it might be worthwhile in the long run, but you know they're not. You do want to say, look p*ss off and let us get on with the job and judge us by our results.

    The 2003 principles on good humanitarian donorship recognize the need for flexibility, but its at too broad a level than what we're talking about here to be of much help as providing a steer.

  4. Rob 30 November, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    Honesty w/o transparency seems to me like arms reduction treaties w/o inspections. “Trust, but verify.” Without transparency, how to determine honesty? You can say anything and do another. Agree w/c above. Efficiency isn’t all. Demanding someone trust you, simply because you may ‘know better’ – the most efficient way to do something… just doesn’t work in anyone who simply doesn’t want to abdicate their own authority/responsibility. You may, indeed, ‘know better’ – way, way better – but your own confidence in you or your org’s ability means little to others. And if you want others to play with you… etc, etc.

    • J. 30 November, 2010 at 8:19 am #

      Almost positive I never advocated a zero-transparency approach. Obviously aid NGOs need to be transparent (and I repeatedly hammer at that point on this blog)… up to a point. Total transparency is neither feasible, really, nor would it add value.

      • Rob 30 November, 2010 at 9:46 am #

        Otoh transparency ‘but only as far as I deem appropriate or useful’ [obviously a made up quote that probably still misses the point] isn’t really what transparency *means*…

        I get what you’re saying though.

        As to the general thrust of the blog or what you ‘hammer at’ – sorry, just started reading today w/a dozen posts or so. Such is the nature of the internets.

      • J. 30 November, 2010 at 11:16 am #

        Fair enough. Who, then, gets to deem how much is appropriate? And are they also required to be transparent about how they do that deeming? And who holds them accountable?

        Thanks for reading!

  5. Rob 30 November, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    “Who, then, gets to deem how much is appropriate?”

    In very general terms, it’s often those providing the funding, not those receiving it… would be my guess.

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