Why not to Publish What You Fund

How much money does the US give away each year in foreign and military aid? To whom? For what? And with what results? Well, we don’t really know. Last week, the Global Campaign for Aid Transparency published the first Aid Transparency Index, scoring and ranking USAID, the Department of Defense, the World Bank, and other international aid agencies on how honest they are about where the money goes.

I wondered aloud (on Twitter) why no one has done this before. The folks at the Aid Transparency Index asked me what I think. Shooting from the hip in two parts, with an eye on incentives:

Part I : Why wouldn’t governments want aid transparency?
– Some kinds of support–to opposition groups or militaries–don’t lend themselves to transparency (right-o, @mickeljen)
– Transparency is the first step toward accountability, which is annoying.
– Tracking every dollar spent uses up dollars that could be spent elsewhere.
– Transparency may put a spotlight on politically sensitive programs, such as family planning efforts.
– Not trusting recipient governments to spend money well could be spun as pedantic.

Part II: Why hasn’t anyone done this before?
– It sounds quite difficult, really.
– Aid workers are incentivized not to stir up trouble, limiting the push for transparency from within organizations.
– From top to bottom, success is measured by funds dispersed rather than results achieved.
– Too few bosses of politicians (voters) care about aid transparency relative to other electoral issues.
– No one thought of it before.

Thanks, @aidtransparency. If you have other ideas, please share!

2 Replies to “Why not to Publish What You Fund”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out Mark, and a thoughtful post. I would add to part two that there is at least one point in the process when success is measured in more than money spent- in competitive funding processes. A lot of outputs (and to a degree, outcomes) are quantified as components of funding proposals and used to assess a recipient's merit. This is not so much true for aid given directly from government to government (though "The Aid Trap" proposes a solution to this) but it is certainly true in the cases of grants disbursed from USDOS, SIDA, World Bank, to other aid orgs. This relates to your point that voters don't hold AID orgs accountable (and probably don't have enough info to, even if the will existed) but there is another facet; many aid orgs don't have an accountability tied to the public/voters– they are accountable to funders (sometimes voters, but often not). And within that smaller ecosystem (grantor-grantee) there can be fierce competition and intense scrutiny.

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