Karin Christiansen: The future of global aid transparency

Karin Christiansen, managing director at Publish What You Fund. Photo by: personal collection

Hers is one of the most recognizable faces of the global aid transparency movement: Karin Christiansen founded Publish What You Fund in 2008 to hold donors accountable on their pledges to disclose information.

Christiansen is also one of today’s most influential development leaders under 40 in London. She and her peers have inspired change that transcends borders.

Devex is recognizing 40 of these young London-based trailblazers in international development. They are social entrepreneurs, government leaders, development consultants, business innovators, advocates, development researchers, nonprofit executives, philanthropists and investors.

We asked Christiansen about her leadership and vision for the aid transparency movement in the years to come. Here’s what she said:

How did you turn Publish What You Fund into a leading advocate for global aid transparency so swiftly and despite limited resources?

For me, the creation of Publish What You Fund was the culmination of years of work in the development sector — so although it may seem like a short space of time to get an organisation up and running in fact it was a campaign that was 15 years in gestation. To be honest, I was getting more and more frustrated after years of working in development and seeing aid not working — or not working as well as it could and should. After years of working as a researcher and adviser I was acutely aware of the potential for improvement and found myself increasingly convinced of the need for some concerted advocacy on the issue.

Aid transparency is an idea whose time has come. Publish What You Fund’s success is built on a wide network of colleagues and friends we have all made over the years. The team here are brilliant and I couldn’t have done it without them.

What outcome are you hoping to see at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1?

The event in Busan is first and foremost a moment in which donors must demonstrate renewed political will. The inconvenient truth is that six years on from a meeting in Paris where donors made a series of pledges to improve the effectiveness of their aid they have made pitiful progress. If Busan is to be more than a talking shop — or worse still a failure — then donors need to redouble their efforts to meet the promises they’ve made. And the outcomes need to be more than political or rhetorical — donors need to set out clearly what concrete progress they are going to make and agree serious timetables which they deliver on this time.

Fundamental to delivering on the broader aid effectiveness agenda, of actually changing donor behaviour, is knowing what donors are doing collectively and in real time. It is pretty hard to do something differently if you don’t actually know what you are currently doing.

That is why we are so focused on aid transparency and making sure more donors sign up to and implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative — a common format for publishing information that enables comparison between donors, and also with recipient countries’ own spending. It is this comparability that turns more information into better information.

What is your vision for Publish What You Fund post-Busan?

Where we go as an organisation next year depends on what happens in Busan. If there is a positive and revitalised aid effectiveness and aid transparency agenda to work on via the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, then we will continue to do that.

But if donors fail to demonstrate the necessary political will or to map a way forward from Busan, then we might look at other ways of intervening. The transparency of traditional aid agencies will still be at the heart of what we do — because we believe it is fundamental to making aid work — but we could look to broaden out to other forms of foreign assistance — and other areas including humanitarian aid, climate finance, military aid and export support credits and some of the BRICs’ newer development assistance.

Read more about the Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in London.

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.