Financial opacity does appear to be the default position of the U.S. Agency for International Development and many of its partner non-governmental organizations in Georgia, Till Bruckner shares in the conclusion of his blog series exploring transparency at USAID.
Bruckner detailed in blog posts published in “Aid Watch” his experience with filing a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire records on the budgets of USAID-funded NGO projects in Georgia. He has, in his blog entries, criticized USAID and some NGOs for their disclosure policies.
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“Rejecting my appeal, USAID has confirmed that it continues to regard NGO project budgets as ‘privileged or confidential’ information, and will not release budgets without contractors’ permission,” Bruckner says. “The opacity of USAID’s subcontracting makes it impossible for researchers to get access to comprehensive and comparable data that could inform debates about the effectiveness of delivering aid through NGOs.”
Bruckner says that financial opacity also seems to be the default strategy of most NGOs. He observes that only Counterpart and CARE have agreed to let USAID release the majority of their budget information in response to his request.
Bruckner adds that there appears to be “wildly divergent understanding of what accountability should mean in practice.” He is reacting to InterAction’s response to his claims on NGO transparency. InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based development NGOs, argued that the “issue at hand is what constitutes relevant information, and to whom specific information should be disclosed.”
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“I continue to believe that project proposals, including uncensored budgets, are essential components of a meaningful rendering of account. Proposals spell out what an NGO plans to achieve, when, where, why and how, and at what cost. If we don’t even know what a project sets out to do, and with what resources, how can we hold it to account for its success or failure?” Bruckner explains.
He also addresses the argument of some NGOs that claim they do not feel obliged to render accounts to third parties.
“This line of argument glosses over the sad reality that NGOs do not reveal project budgets to their beneficiaries either. Also, as charities enjoy tax-exempt status and spend public money, we are all donors, like it or not. And we all care about the beneficiaries, so we are all ‘aid watchers,’” Bruckner says.
“This FOIA journey has shown one thing above all: NGOs (save Oxfam GB) simply do not want outsiders to see their project budgets, full stop,” Bruckner adds. “Not a single NGO has used this forum to announce its willingness to give beneficiaries or other stakeholders access to its project proposals and budgets in the future, even though every country director has these documents on his hard drive and could attach them to an email within two minutes.”
He also notes that this secrecy, which he says is encouraged by USAID, jars with U.S. President Barack Obama’s call at the U.N. Millennium Development Goals summit last week: “Let’s resolve to put an end to hollow promises that are not kept. Let’s commit to the same transparency that we expect of others.”