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The Politics of Non-Transparent Aid Flows

Sina Odugbemi's picture

My attention has been tickled by the news that at the recent High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana, donors apparently agreed to launch an initiative known as the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Under the initiative, according to the DFID press release on the subject, donors have agreed to give:

- Full and detailed information on all aid in each country affected
- Details and costs of individual projects and their aims
- Reliable information on future aid to improve planning by recipient governments.

I hope the initiative will be seriously implemented. But it will not be easy. And the main reason it will not be easy is that the instinct of the technocracy that dominates every aspect of international development is to be non-transparent. Technical experts from donor agencies, and those from the partner government too, like to keep the process of intervention as quiet as possible. The preference, as my colleague Sumir Lal put it in CommGAP's recent publication on governance reform, is for 'reform by stealth'. Going public with what donors are doing, making sure the citizens of the recipient country know what is going on, making sure that these citizens know who is doing what and what is being achieved or not achieved...that is not yet the norm. And it is not yet the norm because to really be transparent about aid flows donors - both bilateral and multilateral - need much better public engagement than is going on.

This lack of transparency and serious public engagement has political implications. A very articulate opposition leader in an African country once explained to me how this works. He said to me: you donors claim not to interfere with domestic politics but you do it all the time. 'How is that so?'  I asked him. His reply: 'Well, you work with governments, you give them budget support, you pay for things they are doing. Governments are run by political parties. When you don't tell the public in this country what you are doing you allow the ruling party to claim credit for your efforts unfairly. That puts opposition parties at a disadvantage. If that is not political interference I don't know what is'. I paraphrase of course, but that is the gist of what he said. His unrebuttable point has stayed with me since. I have since observed the effect he described in other environments. And this is one huge reason why transparency is important. But you cannot have transparency without serious public engagement. And you cannot have serious public engagement without skilled communication influence efforts. As you should have guessed by now, that is my real point.

So long!

Photo Credit: Flickr user makeroadssafe


Submitted by Andrea S. on
I think part of the difficulty is that donors usually like to see themselves as "good" people. After all, they wouldn't be handing out money, or working in the international development or humanitarian fields, if they didn't care about helping people. And people who want to help are usually automatically considered to be "good" people. Which is not wrong in itself. Except that, as one blogger I read a lot has observed (, many people also mistakenly believe that "good" people automatically don't want power over other people. Furthermore, many people believe that simply not wanting to have or use power over others automatically means that you cannot possibly have or use power. After all, "I'm a good person, and good people don't use power over others." What people in the donor field need to learn to acknowledge is that anyone who hands out money, or who has a voice in the process of handing out money, automatically has power whether or not they wanted it. And acquiring power is kind of like growing up a few feet taller and gaining a few thousand pounds overnight: it's just part of you. It's not something that you can just choose to put down because you don't like having it or thinking about it. And when you're suddenly much larger and heavier than the average human, then it's going to matter to other people a lot more every time you try to move around. Because now, you cannot take a step near others without affecting them in some way--whether you mean to or not. We cannot wield power responsibly by pretending we don't have it. Nor can we wield power responsibly by insisting that we're good people and good people only use power for good ends. We can only use power responsibly by first acknowledging to ourselves and others that, yes, we have it. To start with, we need to listen closely to the people who have less power. Power tends to be inherently invisible to the people who carry it. This means people with less power are usually in a better position to recognize power and both its intended and unintended effects. Maybe you didn't even feel it when you stepped on that person and squashed them. But they're still just as squashed. If you don't spend a lot of your time listening, then how would you even know you squashed anyone? Then, after we listen, we need to find better ways to manage our power so that we don't unintentionally hurt others. A stronger accountability loop helps: we tell the people around us that we're about to move and where we're going to step. Then they point out any unintended effects that move might create, such as the person that is standing in our path who cannot move out of the way. We figure out a way to prevent those effects. Then we move. Then people tell us what the consequences for them were. If there were any problems, we talk out how to prevent it from happening again. Then we go back to step A. Or, even better: we ask the people around us to tell us where they think we should move next. Then we do it. But, as you say, transparency and communication is a critical component of this process. And so is listening closely to the people who are most directly affected by what we do. In the international donation field, this means, NOT just the governments of developing countries, but most particularly poor people in developing countries. This includes special attention to poor people who are commonly marginalized and ignored even in their own communities: women, people with disabilities, children, elderly people, indigenous populations, ethnic minorities, etc.

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