From Better “Stuff” To More “Power”: Why transparency matters

Please see below for a post from Paul O’Brien, Vice President for Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam America. This piece originally appeared on Oxfam’s blog, Politics of Poverty.

Will Raj Shah commit USAID to joining the top 10% most transparent donors by the time he leaves his USAID Administrator post?

He might do so, but looking at his recent speeches, it’s no sure thing. More likely, “technological innovation” will continue to win out over “governance” issues like transparency in his priorities. If yesterday’s New York Times interview on child mortality is any indication, he mentions innovation seven times for every mention of transparency. His speech last year on agriculture is fairly typical. Even when he talks about tackling corruption, his proposed fix is to call on “the world’s brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and engineers to design breakthrough technologies to make all voices count.”

Don’t get me wrong—I believe Mr. Shah gets it. His recent progress report on USAID Forward shows his bona fides on transparency. But if you believe that poverty is a function of power imbalances as much as innovation deficits, then you want USAID’s leadership talking about governance, incentives and democratizing “power” as much as helping people to get more and better “stuff”. Teach a man to fish with a high tech rod, and you will feed him for a lifetime. Unless of course, someone steals all the fish, the water gets polluted, or the government sells off the access rights!

So I hope that in the next four years, Mr. Shah and USAID will talk more about power and governance. I hope he will seek to strengthen institutions by holding his own and then others more accountable. What’s one concrete way to do this?  Don’t just talk about transparency as an end in itself. (It was hearing him deliver this speech on the International Aid Transparency Initiative last year that got me worried). I want Mr. Shah to explain whytransparency is so important, and explicitly link transparency to making local institutions more politically accountable to their own citizens. I want him to talk more about how functioning, inclusive domestic institutions in developing countries are the indispensable foundation for innovations to take hold.

In 2004, the Minister of Finance in Afghanistan asked me to explain what the US government was spending on development in his country. Finding out turned into a massive undertaking. It wasn’t just that USAID had no one spreadsheet capturing their work. There were a dozen other US agencies working there and no-one had managed to put it all together. As a competent technocrat, the Minister and his President wanted to build up political legitimacy and to report to the Afghan people on what international aid was delivering. We had no answers. They wanted to hold other ministries accountable for how they managed funds in health care, education and rural rehabilitation. They couldn’t.

That’s why it frustrated me to no end when Publish What You Fund’s pilot ranked USAID in the bottom 36% of most transparent donors in 2011. It is why I took heart when USAID had climbed into the top 37% by the 2012 full assessment. That progress made me wonder whether Mr. Shah and USAID do get the importance of transparency after all.

Now, he should commit USAID to becoming a top 10% donor on transparency by the time he leaves, and explain once and for all, how transparency can help local institutions become more accountable to their own citizens in delivering lasting development results.

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