Transparency and accountability in development: where do we stand?

Transparency and accountability in development: where do we stand?

It’s been nearly one year since world leaders and more than 3,000 people came together in Busan, South Korea to map out a new way forward on development cooperation.

Amid much fanfare, a sweeping agreement was signed by countries that bound together traditional providers of development aid, like the United States and Germany, and new actors – like Brazil and China – in the pursuit of making aid flows more effective for the people that need it the most: the poor. Transparency and accountability were put forward among the shared principles to deliver on these commitments.

Transparency and accountability in development cooperation are two sides of the same coin. Without comparable, timely and accessible information, it is impossible to know what money is going where, for what purpose and with what results. Accountability mechanisms that engage people and create a sense of ownership in projects help to ensure that funding decisions are relevant and implemented as promised.

Did Busan change anything?

So, what has changed since the Busan agreement? Has development become more transparent and accountable? Transparency International, in collaboration with Columbia University (United States) and the Hertie School of Governance (Germany), sought to find out.

The two universities fielded teams of graduate students to look at good practice indicators for transparent and accountable development cooperation in four countries: Colombia, Liberia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The policies and practices of five funders – Brazil, China, Germany, India and the United States – were put under the microscope. This mix of traditional and new actors was selected to better understand how each has behaved toward meeting the obligations set out in Busan.

The starting point for the study’s methodology is simple: if someone wishes to find out key information about one of these development actors’ assistance to a country, can they do it?

Overall, the answer would unfortunately be no. This holds true for new and traditional donors alike.

The case of Sri Lanka: how do donors fare?

According to the findings, none of the actors assessed in Sri Lanka – China, Germany, India or the United States – has a clear, publicly available policy that sets out a regular, sustained dialogue between them and the Sri Lankan government as part of producing a mutual strategy for development cooperation.

Nor do any of these four aid providers publish information online to explain the rationale for the sectors or themes that they are supporting, and how these are used for allocating funding to the country.

Both pieces of information are fundamental for setting out working relationships of mutual accountability – a promise made by development actors back in 2005 as part of the Paris Declaration.

And except for India, none of the countries publish information on how much cooperation they provided to Sri Lanka during the previous year (2011).

What’s causing the accountability gap?

These issues aren’t unique to aid for Sri Lanka. So, why are these problems common in all the countries assessed?

Reporting systems are lagging

One source of problems is with the current reporting system.

New development actors like Brazil and China consider their support to fall outside the official aid definitions – and rightly so. But this means that they are not reporting through the formal aid channels. They have not embraced a common standard for tracking development flows that looks at more than just aid or allows data to be updated instantly (and at least quarterly).

It’s critical to remember that transparency, accountability and anti-corruption are principles that go beyond traditional classifications associated with aid effectiveness – no matter how funders choose to label their assistance to another country.

For those development donors like Germany and the United States that report using the current aid classifications, delays in cross-checking and putting their information online mean that data is not available for the current (or even previous) year.

And while both Germany and the United States have officially endorsed the common standard known as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), they have not started implementing it. This is part of the reason why both countries have performed relatively poorly on global aid transparency indices, like the one produced by Publish What You Fund.

Lack of consistent policies

Another area of concern is that development actors lack consistent policies across countries to meet their own commitments to make funding transparent and accountable.

For example, the United States has openly published a country strategy for their work in Nepal and Sri Lanka, but not for Colombia or Liberia. A country strategy anchors the work of a development actor in another country, setting out clear and detailed plans. Similar inconsistencies in information and practices appear for China, Germany and India. (More about each country’s performance can be found on our blog.

Concrete steps toward improved aid effectivness

So, what can be done to ensure improved transparency and accountability in development? The following measures are a good start:

More about the researchers

The research team from Columbia University included Emiko Araki, Antoine Cocle, Michael Francis Craft, Homa Hassan, Anna Kordunsky, Anna Levy, Mario Nacimento and Gracia Caroline Sidabutar.

The research team for the Hertie School included Claudia Mueller and Sandra Pfluger.

Research materials

Indicator Assessment Framework

Study Overview (Methodology, Findings and Recommendations) 

Overviews of Results (by provider)

Overviews of Results (by recipient)

Researcher Notebooks:

 

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