The following post was written by Till Bruckner, PhD candidate at the University of Bristol and former Transparency International Georgia aid monitoring coordinator. In response to my recent post here, Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust argues that asking NGOs to share their budgets is misguided. He correctly points out that we should be concerned more with project outcomes than with financial details. However, while aid beneficiaries can and do judge NGO projects by their impact on the ground, Western taxpayers and private donors are unable to do so from afar. Transparency has many dimensions, including financial transparency. As a taxpayer, I have the right to ask what my money is being spent on as well as the right to ask what those expenditures actually achieved. Plus, if I cannot even find out what the total cost of a project was, how can I judge whether it was worth my money?
Scott Gilmore also states that access to budgets will not help to curb corruption, and recommends a focus on audits instead. While it is true that I cannot look at a budget and see whether the money was misappropriated in a legal sense, it does enable me to see what the money was allocated for in the first place. My original aim in requesting these budgets was not to muckrake, but to analyze what percentage of NGO project funds in Georgia flows back into donor countries in some form or another. I need to be able to distinguish between expenditures for local versus international salaries in order to find this out.
The aid industry has created a system that conveniently defines corruption so that expats can live a good life within the rules, whereas locals on far smaller salaries and with larger family commitments frequently get branded as corrupt for breaking these rules. In my experience, Afghan villagers do not share this narrow legalistic definition of corruption. When a project fails to deliver benefits to the poor, and the expat project manager at the same time lives a life of (locally) unimaginable luxury on designated poverty alleviation funds, villagers logically conclude that the project is failing due to corruption: instead of helping them as originally promised, the NGO is only helping itself. NGOs' arrogant attitude - "we're accountable by our own standards so we don't need to tell you where the money goes" - does little to change this perception.
Finally, Scott Gilmore raises the question of competition within the aid industry. I suspect many private donors would be dismayed to learn that some charities seem to orient their practices around the competition for government contracts. In any case, competition for a project ends when a funding decision has been made and taxpayers' money gets disbursed. Putting all successful proposals into the public realm as a matter of course will not only improve inter-agency learning, but will also discourage backroom dealing on contracts. This will create a more level playing field for all aid implementers, whether they are commercial contractors or NGOs. If Oxfam, UMCOR, Mercy Corps and AIHA can share their budgets, it is hard to see why other aid agencies cannot do the same.
Original post and responses: Till Bruckner: The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test Scott Gilmore: Transparent, Yes. But Transparent What? Transparency Extremist: Transparency in the Aid process Scott Gilmore: Useful Transparency vs. Meaningless Paper Chasing