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.
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