Here is a nice paper from Homi Kharas of Brookings on how transparency can transform accountability in the official aid sector. The paper goes beyond treating transparency as a slogan and instead asks "what is it good for?"
Here are some thoughts that came to mind as I read the paper:
- Key questions: a) Who is doing what (b) to whom (c) with whom (d) why, and (e) how is it going?
- An emphasis on beneficiary voice is key. Kharas says "In many ways, the call for aid transparency is a hand maiden of the call for greater ownership by recipients."
- Transparency should be mostly about learning rather than punishment or blame - see this.
- This will only work if we get the incentives right - incentives for donors to put out data, and incentives for people to provide feedback and input. Top-down mandates will not work; my own experience is they will sink under their own weight. As a corollary, simpler may be better than complex. Witness Yelp and TripAdvisor. Both have flaws, but they are sustained and influence behavior in ways more complex and heavy systems do not.
- For these initiatives to work, they require a combination of factors - the right information, gathered from the right sources, displayed through the right user interface, to the right people, at the right time.
- Lant Pritchett has a very nice article about the disincentives that donors face for honest evaluation. Bottom line is that there is all downside, and little upside.
- Devesh Kapur and I predict that allowing each donor to run its own transparency system will lead to obfuscation and lack of network effects. The biggest effect would come from a single, independent system that donors can't massage.