Response from Mercy Corps on Transparency

Editor's note: Aid Watch received the following from Mercy Corps in response to a request for comment on Till Bruckner's post The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test. We have reproduced the Mercy Corps response here in full: Till Bruckner’s posts on NGO accountability raise interesting questions – and it is unfortunate that the discussion has devolved into insinuations about NGO motives rather than an open discussion of what constitutes meaningful accountability in aid work.  While Mercy Corps appreciates being referred to as among the “most transparent NGOs,” we would argue that the willingness to release project budget documents to a third party is not a good indicator of an NGO’s overall level of accountability to its beneficiaries and stakeholders.  By applying such a narrow focus, Bruckner unfortunately turns what could be a rich and textured discussion of aid methodology into a less germane question of responsiveness to a self-appointed watchdog.

The rest of the story on Georgia First off, a bit more background on the Transparency International research project that Bruckner referenced in the original post.  In May 2009, Bruckner contacted Mercy Corps through our main website, informing us in vague terms that a report on NGO transparency would be forthcoming.  He requested a contact email where he could send the report for our review.  Our Georgia Country Director sent Bruckner an email three days later requesting that any inquiries be directed to him; Bruckner never followed up.  We heard nothing more until the following month, when we and the other agencies received an email from a different TI official, informing us that their project had developed a ranking of NGO transparency “based on the content provided on their websites”.  TI noted that it would “be extremely happy to improve the score of your organization and re-write the relevant sections of the report if you email us the complete proposals with budgets for all your ongoing projects as public documents (we will hide individual salary information before re-posting on our website).”  However, the agencies were given just three working days to review the report and turn any information over to TI-Georgia.

Mercy Corps and the other agencies contacted had serious concerns about TI’s approach.  We felt that the web-centric methodology of the study was flawed; that the format of the resulting report misrepresented how TI had engaged with our agencies (in fact, TI had not engaged us at all at that point); and felt, as agencies in the midst of a major ongoing post-conflict aid effort, that a three-day turnaround on the demand for proposal and budget data was inadequate.  The NGOs sent a letter of reply to TI expressing these concerns, and suggesting that TI take this opportunity to engage with us in a dialog on how to move forward with aid transparency in Georgia.  TI-Georgia eventually did come to meet with the NGOs and listen to our concerns.  As a result of that meeting TI agreed to redo the survey at a later date; however there was no further contact from TI after that meeting.  Bruckner’s posts make no reference to the NGOs’ substantive concerns, nor to the subsequent dialog with TI over these issues.  Here are the original emails, as well as the NGOs’ letter of response to TI, so that readers can draw their own conclusions about whether the issue has been presented fairly.

That process aside, there are important questions at stake here of how, and to whom, aid agencies should be accountable:

Does budget-sharing constitute accountability? Raw budget data, and the willingness to share it, is a poor proxy for real, comprehensive aid accountability – especially when divorced from the context of the project itself.  NGOs have different cost structures and different methodologies, and budget documents reveal little about which are most effective.  Certain types of projects – such as technical assistance or gender-based violence prevention – tend by their nature to be heavy on labor costs and light on capital items, while food distribution or micro-lending tend to be lighter on labor costs and heavier on capital requirements.  Posting the raw budgets of a handful of agencies reveals little about whether those agencies are effective, whether they are accountable to their beneficiaries, or whether their cost structures are reasonable. Furthermore, there can be legitimate reasons for withholding budget data.  To take one example, even Transparency International’s own handbook on Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations acknowledges that “the highly volatile environments in which aid is often delivered means it’s important to recognise that public information about the value of programme resources and their transport may sometimes jeopardise staff and beneficiary security, particularly in conflict contexts.”

How does accountability make aid more effective? The ultimate purpose of accountability and transparency is to provide more effective aid.  As the SPHERE manual’s guidance note on Communication and Transparency states: “the sharing of information and knowledge among all those involved is fundamental to achieving a better understanding of the problem and to providing coordinated assistance.”  This is best achieved when the beneficiary population is involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring of that activity.  This integration of stakeholders into core parts of the project management process ensures that divergence between community needs and NGO deliverables is kept to a minimum.

What constitutes accountability to our constituents? NGO accountability focuses on our beneficiaries, our donors, and the governments of the countries where we work.  We orient our accountability systems to provide appropriate information, in appropriate formats, to these constituencies.  To prevent fraud and ensure good financial stewardship we institute rigorous financial and administrative policies (for an example, check out Mercy Corps’ Office-in-a-Box) and subject ourselves to extensive compliance requirements and a barrage of external audits.  Given the extensive burden that these requirements impose on already-stretched staff, it is often true that NGOs are less responsive to the demands of third-party watchdogs.  At a program level, NGO accountability means providing community stakeholders with means of evaluating a project’s goals, the appropriateness of its implementation strategy, and ultimately its effectiveness in meeting those goals.  Publicizing budget data may be a part of the approach depending on the context – but it is not a substitute for a project methodology that puts a core focus on community priorities and community participation.


Related posts:

The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test Till Bruckner Responds to Critics on Meaningful Transparency NGO Response: CNFA Reaffirms Commitment to Transparency World Vision responds on transparency USAID and NGO transparency: When in doubt, hide the data