We don’t really know to what extent aid transparency will improve aid effectiveness. There are excellent arguments in favour of aid transparency as well as reasonable warnings against too much optimism.
Evidence on the impact of transparency is scarce, as Rosemary McGee and John Gaventa point out in their research. But whether or not transparency is a powerful tool to improve development cooperation is not really the point. The transparency debate only illustrates a much broader and much more fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and their governments. The perception of how much government-held information should be published generally is one element of this change. The second element is the growing participation of citizens in responsibilities hitherto limited to governments, the participation of civil society in public affairs.
The change in the respective roles of governments and citizens may be slow, but numerous cases around the globe suggest it is happening. If this analysis is correct, then aid agencies will have to become more transparent and more open to participation in the long run.
How has access to government-held information changed in recent years? Over the last 20 years, the demand for public information has strongly increased. Since 2000, more than 50 countries have passed Freedom of Information legislation and a number of countries have launched sector-specific or general open data platforms.
A strong focus of transparency initiatives is on national budgets. For 10 years, the non-governmental organisation International Budget Partnership has published a report on budget transparency. According to the current ranking, South Africa has the most open national budget in the world. But access to information goes beyond financial information. For example, Swedish citizen have access to public data and documents, including all letters written by Swedish government representatives. Another example is the transparency portal of the Brazilian government, which publishes the amount of social welfare money given to each individual citizen.
Apart from political motivations, why do governments agree to publish their data and become more transparent? One main reason is, it pays. Governments have recognized, that information is an invaluable resource. Access to information can create huge efficiency gains within government administrations and can improve services. But the release of data also allows private companies to develop new businesses based on data and promote economic growth.
At the same time, the costs of information have been greatly reduced in the past years. Today. vast quantities of data can be collected, stored, published, distributed, re-used and mashed up at moderate costs. So, technology is certainly a driver of the transparency movement.
Where governments do not yet publish information proactively, NGOs search for information and provide analysis. For example, Govtrack.US follows legislative processes in the United States, GuatemalaVisible sheds light on how political appointments are made in Guatemala and Uwazi monitors education policy and politics in Tanzania.
But citizens do not only want to have more access to government information, they also want to act upon this information. Again, technology plays an important role in the trend towards more civic participation. As Clay Shirky points out in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, social media strengthens the debate among citizens and the public sphere. And it is a strong public sphere, he argues, that increases the power of citizens vis-a-vis their governments. It is hard to see how intense public debate and the coordination of a large number of people in dispersed locations could be created without mobile communication and without the viral character of social media.
Citizen participation in public affairs can be the simple act of reporting problems in service delivery and publishing them, as it happened in the Huduma project in Kenya. WriteToThem in the United Kingdom helps citizens to contact their parliamentary representatives and have their voices heard. On CidadeDemocratica in Brazil, citizens go one step further and organise themselves to solve problems in their communities.
The trend of citizens becoming more engaged in public affairs is, however, not limited to ensuring good public services. NGOs promoting direct democracy like Mehr Demokratie in Germany or enabling civic participation in national legislative processes, like FolketsTing in Denmark, are changing the perception of how citizens and governments view their respective roles. Not surprisingly, this changed perspective leads to entirely new political institutions, such as the SenatorOnline party in Australia, whose elected representatives vote according to internet polls on the questions debated in the senate.
Governments respond to this change by launching open consultation processes at the local, regional, national and even international level, for example at the European Commission. Public consultations cover a broad range of sectors and decisions, including budgetary decisions, as a map on participatory budgeting initiatives around the world demonstrates.
Of course, as of now, most citizens are not yet involved in public consultations or online platforms to have their voices heard and most examples I cite are from Western democracies. But new projects promoting transparency and citizen participation are initiated around the globe and faster than they can be tracked. It will take some time before this trend reaches all countries and all levels of society. Along the way many “e-initiatives” will probably fail, until we gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. In some cases, this trend may also have negative effects, if extreme political views dominate discussions or if participation is not accompanied by balanced information. But irrespective of these caveats, I am convinced that this change is permanent.
What does all this mean for aid transparency?
The first conclusion is that the demand for more transparency in development cooperation will grow, and that it will also extend to non-governmental actors such as foundations and private companies. Organisations weary to meet the growing demand for transparency will not be able to sit it out. As long as aid agencies are not transparent, the public discourse will be dominated by piecemeal information and blown-up scandals. The sooner aid agencies embrace the transparency agenda, the sooner they will be able to improve their services and gain in public confidence.
The second conclusion is that aid transparency is not enough, as other writers on this Full Disclosure blog have pointed out. Participation has long been a pet term of development activists, but it never took root in main stream development cooperation. One reason for this may be that participation of citizens has until recently been accompanied by high transaction costs and logistical obstacles. Information technology can considerably reduce these costs. Participation also requires respect for citizens’ rights, financial resources and capacity building. For a given country and a given donor, this change may take some years to become apparent. But sooner or later, aid organisations will be faced with a strong demand of citizens, particularly at the project level, to engage with them.
But why wait until change is inevitable? Why not benefit from the local knowledge of citizens? Why not increase efficiency and reduce corruption by accepting local watchdogs? Why not invite citizens’ feedback on project management, outputs and impacts on a regular basis? Why not explore the potential of technology to involve citizens at the project level? Some aid agencies are already demonstrating that much more transparency and much more active participation of citizens is possible and yields positive results. So I can’t think of a valid reason not embrace this change.
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Read more of Full Disclosure: The aid transparency blog, written by aid workers for aid workers.