Aid Transparency

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Vinay Gupta:

"Here's the unpopular truth: most aid is wasted. There are horror stories, well-told by people like Kevin Starr and David Damburger who describe, in these videos, the fullness of the Aid Problem. The stories are horrific: products hailed as breakthroughs which are simply unused 90% because they don't work very well in the real world, or wells dug and dug again by different international agencies who never talk to each-other, and never come back to check their work later. This situation is costing a lot of lives, and, worse, calling into question the existence of international aid.

If we stand up and speak the truth about what is broken, so the argument goes, we'll lose our funding and more people will die. And this kind of thinking has gone on for generations of aid workers, become a sort of amoral corporate philosophy, taught to and then bred into each new round of do-gooders by their organizational forebears, making sure that the party line will never change: Aid is Perfect, give us More Money, and let us Get On With Saving the World.

But, in truth, the aid game is being challenged on all sides. Cell phones mean locals can call up when their well fails. SMS messages from refugee camps arrive on the phones of high officials. Donors demand greater transparency because they *know* damn well the data can be collected at marginal costs now. The Big Lie of the aid world - keep silent about our mistakes, because we're saving lives by keeping our mouth shut when we screw up - is coming apart at the seams under the weight of more transparency. The parallels to Wikileaks successes and failures are informative and ironic.

Here we see the same kind of mission-critical, life-or-death systems being disrupted by transparency, by the same forces which Julian Assange sought to point at government. It's all about the power of information to move money, the power of secrecy to hide bad practice. In the aid world, however, rather than a semi-secret cabal making the publishing decisions, the pressure for transparency comes over an extremely broad front, from individual donors who are slowly asking to know more about where the money goes, through to groups beginning to campaign for more honesty about failures in the field, through to improved communications facilitating full communications from remote areas, helping to keep everyone on the same team.

The broad, even nature of the pressure in aid is a critical difference to the Wikileaks model. A central "aid goof clearing house" structured like Wikileaks would clearly be pernicious - more secrecy, tighter control of information about errors, harsher political climate etc. would all be the costs for such an agency's existence, even if it did occasionally reveal truly hideous wrong-doing in the course of business. The structure itself, of centralizing the point of openness in hidden hands, clearly negates its own best objectives.

This is an old lesson which every generation of political campaigners must learn: you must unify the ends and the means. If the goal is peace, the method must be peace. If the goal is openness, the method must be openness." (