What does transparency look like?

Paul Currion
Feb 4 · 5 min read

Our pilot project with DFID’s Frontier Technology Livestreaming programme has transparency at its heart. It’s a topic which concerns everybody in the aid industry — it’s not just a technical question for aid professionals, but something which anybody who ever made a donation to a fundraising campaign has wondered about. Where did the money go?

It was because of this that the first of the 9 workstreams set out in the Grand Bargain struck at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit called for “Greater Transparency”. The Grand Bargain defined transparency in a very specific way, as “identifying and implementing a shared open-data standard and common digital platform which will enhance transparency and decision-making.”

The standard in question was the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), and the platform was the Financial Tracking Service (FTS). These two institutions remain key to improving transparency in the humanitarian sector — and we’re lucky to be working with both of them in our Pilot project on financial technology in the aid sector.

While demonstrating potential financial efficiencies will likely be the most obvious outcome, our analysis will rely on also demonstrating potential transparency improvements in the entire delivery chain. We interviewed a range of stakeholders in Sprint One, in order to understand what they would see as improvement.

That research highlighted an interesting point about transparency; while the definition of transparency in the Grand Bargain is broad enough to be acceptable to a range of stakeholders, the practical experience and perceived utility of “transparency” varies depending on the stakeholder — their institution, location, activities, and so on.

The Grand Bargain statement itself recognises this, referring to the need for data analysis to explain “the distinctiveness of activities, organisations, environments and circumstances”. In order to work together to build a more transparent aid system, it’s critical to understand that different stakeholders are looking for different versions of transparency.

In this context we have grouped together stakeholders very broadly. The categories reflect the focus of our initial research, and so we do not include government bodies in countries receiving aid, for example. However we are certain that further research would clarify these other categories, their different definitions, and the differing utility of those definitions.

Our research suggests three perspectives on transparency. These categories are intentionally broad — there are differences of perspective within each category, for example between international and national implementing partners — but there appeared to be enough coherence within each to make them meaningful.

The point that is worth noting is that, while these categories are clearly related to each other, achieving transparency at one level will be less useful for the other levels. This is natural — each level has different decision-making requirements — but it means thinking carefully about how we design transparency initiatives.

What does Transparency look like to different Stakeholder groups?

The Grand Bargain workstream obviously relates to that first version of transparency. This type of transparency is essential from a donor perspective, because it enables donors to discharge their responsibility to be accountable to the tax-paying public whose money is being disbursed.

As a result, this version of transparency is a top-down technocratic requirement that primarily requires aid organisations to submit more or less standardised reports to a public platform which enables stakeholders to tick a box for “transparency” — but does not necessarily incentivise its practical application.

There is a limit to the utility of this version of transparency. We see this in Development Initiatives’ 2017 review of IATI, which found that “to date use of IATI data remains limited in purpose and location.” We believe that the main reason for this is that it does not meet the more practical transparency needs of stakeholders on the other levels in our table above.

Implementing partners see transparency as an operational tool: understanding when and how funds will be arriving is critical for planning and implementing activities. Accountability for them relates to the organisation conveying those funds: in the case of Country Based Pooled Funds, the UN bodies responsible for their finances.

This underlines another key finding — and one that Disberse has been emphasising since we began. Accountability is about power, and transparency is a tool for accountability. This is because transparency makes more information about our work available to people who are affected by that work — by the different stakeholder groups that we discuss below.

However we also believe that — as a tool — transparency is more useful to those who already have power, than it is to those who do not. For many reasons, power generally rests towards the beginning of the delivery chain, and diminishes the further along the delivery chain you travel, so that those at the end of that chain have far less power.

At the end of the chain, standardised datasets on aid are of little use to a person affected by disaster, if they lack the power to act on what they learn through that transparency. Knowing where funds came from, and through which institutions those funds passed, is of little use if you do not have other tools that will enable you to hold those institutions accountable.

To those with less power, transparency without additional tools could end up being disempowering rather than empowering. The Grand Bargain rightly calls for more support and funding tools for local and national responders (Workstream 2) and a Participation Revolution (Workstream 6), both of which may provide some of these tools.

We came away from our research realising that there is no single approach to transparency — even the working definition provided by the Grand Bargain does not capture the interests of every stakeholder. A pilot such as ours, which wants to demonstrate the potential impact of improvements in transparency, needs to address this clearly.

How do we do this? We bear these different definitions in mind during interviews, and then use this feedback to inform our analysis. This is a DFID project, and so our discussion must give enough weight to the specific utility that DFID sees in our pilot; but one of our recommendations is to expand the scope of this discussion to include other stakeholders.

Focus on the definition of transparency, important as it is, will be less useful than focus on the utility of transparency for different stakeholders in the delivery chain. We plan to incorporate use cases from our research findings to measure the utility that this technology can provide — and hopefully to generate wider discussion amongst those stakeholders.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Paul Currion

Written by

I live in the city because I got tired of living up the mountain.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

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