The U.S. Agency for International Development and some of its partner non-governmental organizations seem to have a default position when asked to divulge detailed financial information: nondisclosure.
This is the observation of Till Bruckner, former aid monitoring coordinator at Transparency International Georgia and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Bristol. Bruckner has been detailing on the “Aid Watch” blog how he tried to acquire budget information of 19 United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and private contractors engaged in USAID-backed projects in Georgia.
As Devex reported, Bruckner observed in a previous blog entry that USAID seems to be struggling when it comes to practicing transparency. He says it took him to 14 months and a Freedom of Information request to finally get the information he wanted. And when he received them, he was even more disappointed because most of the documents were “full of blacked-out non-information.”
USAID said it was legally bound to contact each grantee to give it “the opportunity to address how the disclosure of their information could reasonably be expected to cause substantial competitive harm,” Bruckner noted.
In this new blog entry, Bruckner shares that “Aid Watch” contacted the five NGOs with “blacked-out” financial information. Only two responded.
World Vision denied it forwarded any request for USAID to black out any of its budget information. CNFA, on the other hand, said it considers its detailed budget information as confidential. CNFA did not comment on whether it was asked by USAID for permission to disclose its budget information, Bruckner writes.
USAID, meanwhile, maintained that it contacted all NGOs included in the Freedom of Information request, according to Bruckner.
He shares this statement from the agency: “As a matter of standard operating procedure, USAID notified in writing all the organizations whose budgets were sought under the FOIA request. When we did not receive a response from some of the organizations, the FOIA office followed the regular process regarding redactions. USAID redacts trade, commercial, financial, and personally identifying information in order to protect USAID’s and external organizations’ business and personal data.”
“So the default position is nondisclosure: USAID is legally bound to contact each NGO, but if USAID’s message gets lost, or if the NGO decides not to respond for any reason, then USAID redacts their data for them. Incentives are thus set up for aid agencies NOT to respond, and for USAID NOT to disclose,” Bruckner observes. “What incentives are there for NGOs to take part in an open dialogue, when their own funder sets such low standards for transparency and accountability?”