Transparency and accountability: A Busan high point

Jan Mattsson, UNOPS director.

Transparency and accountability were a big deal at the recent High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately established transparency and accountability as the first principle of effective aid in his opening address to thousands of participants. A few minutes later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the U.S. to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. This important initiative aims to make information about aid spending easier to find, compare and use, and has been gaining in momentum, with a number of major players joining the buildup to Busan.

UNOPS, along with our partners at the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and a range of bilateral donors, is attempting to drive this process forward by publishing as much data as possible about the work we do.

IATI is by now well-known in the development community. But as important as it is, there are other international standards that we believe will improve the effectiveness of aid, or let’s use instead the broader concept of development, a term which fits better with the discourse at Busan. Management standards make it possible to compare how different organizations are performing; they make it easier to hold the organization to account.

Transparency and accountability are imperatives for all effective development. How else can all those with a stake in the process, from beneficiaries to taxpayers to donors, really track how money is being spent and what it is achieving?

This is not a fad, nor is it a new concept. Aid transparency got its first major boost in the legendary Paris Declaration. It made a big step forward in Accra and with the resulting formation of IATI. In Busan, despite criticisms of certain aspects of the outcome document, most of the people that cared about transparency were quite happy with the progress in this area.

A lot of this progress can be credited to IATI - probably the best new thing that has happened in the development arena for quite some time. The movers and shakers behind the initiative should be thanked and congratulated.  

While initial uptake was slow, about 75 percent of official development assistance is now covered (in the commitment stage), and there is no reason why there shouldn’t eventually be full compliance. Signing IATI commits an organization to creating data about its work in an easy-to-access format. This type of information is needed anyway for management purposes in an organization worth its salt. Why then not make it publicly available so that people can be the judges of how well the money is spent? Why would you want to hide such information?

IATI is still a work in progress and faces challenges and opportunities. We must ensure full compliance, so that organizations do not only sign up but also fulfill the requirements by publishing information according to IATI standards. Once all organizations publish full sets of their data, the opportunities for fresh analysis and research into the true realities and effects of aid are astounding. This will help us move the development world into a more evidence-based framework, revealing best practices and avoidable pitfalls which currently remain hidden in the data.

The other opportunity is to expand the IATI requirements. They already cover most of the minimum information required for a “data set” to be actually useful for analysis. However, they are confined to input-related data. It would be good to see more standardized reporting on results. And we could bring this to the next level by linking geomapping to a space where beneficiaries can post photos or comments through their cellphones. The technology is there. The political will must also be there, and it was good to see the many advocacy groups and committed development organizations in Busan.  

UNOPS is ready to contribute our transparency expertise in our core areas of physical infrastructure and public procurement, and would like to engage with partners to get this done. In Busan, UNOPS also made a pitch for the use of other best practice standards that, like IATI, would contribute to development effectiveness.

The point here is that organizations that use publicly available, international best practice standards make it easier for their partners to collaborate with them and for stakeholders to hold them accountable. By and large, specialized ways of conducting business, particular to your own organization, make you more obscure, less accountable, and, most likely, also less efficient.

Examples of useful management standards include ISO 9001 for quality management, very common in the private sector but not yet in the development community; IPSAS for public accounting standards; PRINCE2 for project management; and CIPS for procurement and supply chain management.

At UNOPS, we have discovered that all these standards are not only relevant to the development community, but with the right commitment, they are attainable and extremely effective. UNOPS would be happy to share its experiences of our work implementing these standards with our partners in the development world. 

Applying such standards across the board is an effective way to ensure we are all able to perform at a level of quality that ranks us with the top organizations of any sector. The people we are trying to help deserve no less.

UNOPS can be contacted at info@unops.org

Read more of Full Disclosure: The aid transparency blog, written by aid workers for aid workers.

About the author

  • Jan mattsson profile

    Jan Mattsson

    Jan Mattsson is a development professional with over 30 years experience in managing development programs and international organizations. Since joining UNOPS in 2006 as executive director, he has, together with colleagues, passionately pursued “operational excellence for results that matter.” This has been done with a keen eye on core values and principles, especially respect for national ownership and capacities, and transparency and accountability for results. Jan holds a doctoral degree in engineering with a multi-disciplinary thesis on management of technological change based on research in his native Sweden, India and Tanzania.