The following post was written by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator. Are you ashamed of your organization’s budgets? Do you think your supporters would be shocked if they could see exactly how you are spending their money? Do you feel the need to keep your finances hidden from your local partners and clients? If you answered all three questions with “yes,” you might be working for an international NGO.
After the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Transparency International (TI) Georgia, a local organization working on transparency and accountability issues, tried to track and monitor 4.5 billion dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid that donors had pledged. It was in for a shock.
Out of twelve NGOs that it asked to publicize the budgets of their ongoing projects, only one (Oxfam GB) complied. In an unusual display of interagency coordination, ten NGOs convened a meeting and wrote a joint letter to TI Georgia, arguing that they were unable to share their budgets at short notice as “there are a number of legal and contractual implications involved with donors, head office and other stakeholders which will take time to resolve.”
Nine of the signatories to the letter were members of InterAction, whose standards state that “organizations shall substantiate, upon request, that their application of funds is in accordance with donor intent or request” and that “the member organization shall be committed to full, honest and accurate disclosure of relevant information concerning its goals, programs, finances and governance.” In theory, the NGOs had committed themselves to transparency.
In Georgia, international development organizations have been advocating for greater transparency for years, teaching citizens that they have the right to know how their money is spent, ordering community-based organizations to publicly display the budgets of their micro-projects and telling local governments that they have the duty to provide financial information to those they serve. Years ago, I asked an NGO manager what he considered the greatest success of the project that he was running. “We finally got the district government to post its budget in the mayor’s office, where everybody can see it,” he proudly told me. When I suggested that he post his own project’s budget in his office, he recoiled. “This is an experimental project, so the overheads are very high,” he replied. “So it would be very difficult to explain.”
While there appears to be little hope of gaining access to project budgets through NGOs themselves, institutional donors are subject to legislation in their home countries. I filed a Freedom of Information request with USAID in May 2009 to request copies of the budgets of all NGO projects in Georgia funded by American taxpayers’ money. Six months later USAID informed me that it needed the consent of the NGOs to release this data as it might contain “confidential commercial information,” thereby closing the opacity loop: first NGOs had blamed donors for not being able to release budgets, and now the biggest donor was passing the buck back to NGOs.
After a series of follow-up emails to USAID's Information and Records Division had gone unanswered, I lodged a formal complaint with USAID's Inspector General in March 2010. Two months later, the Inspector General's office finally replied, saying “this matter does not fall within the investigative purview of our office” and passing the buck to the Director of Administrative Services. Meanwhile, one year after my original request for information, the budgets of US-funded NGOs in Georgia remain as elusive as ever.
Secrecy and charity make for strange bedfellows. Those who spend the public’s money in the name of the poor have a duty to make themselves accountable to rich and poor alike by publicly explaining how this money is being spent. Congress should step in and require USAID to publish what US-funded NGOs spend by posting full narrative and financial project proposals online as soon as a funding decision is taken.
Till Bruckner worked for NGOs in Georgia and Afghanistan before managing TI Georgia’s aid monitoring programme in 2008-2009. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on accountability and corruption in NGO projects in Georgia. The views in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TI Georgia. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.