Five years after Busan—time to raise the bar in aid transparency

Spring has sprung and once again Publish What You Fund has issued its Aid Transparency Index (ATI). Once again most of the multilateral development banks (MDBs) receive high grades rated as very good. And once again I ask whether those grades are well deserved? At the heart of my question is whether aid agencies are disclosing sufficient information during the critical implementation stage of a project.

Last year we reviewed the practices of 8 aid agencies, 7 of which consistently receive the highest accolades in the ATI. What was evident from our review was the serious asymmetry of the type of aid data released to the public. A major target at Busan in 2011 when donors made commitments to aid transparency and in the establishment of the ATI has been the reporting of aid flows and the projects approved by each agency. There has been growing emphasis since then on reporting information on the results of those projects. But there has been very limited progress in the release of information during project implementation.

The importance of such information should be obvious. It is during project implementation that the various stakeholders need to monitor project progress, report on issues requiring attention, and make changes to ensure achievement of the desired results. It is insufficient to only disclose who wins a contract; consideration should be given to publishing the contracts, reporting on its execution, and disclosing amendments to the contracts. And it is not enough to simply publish the resettlement action plan for a project; how that plan is being implemented must be reported. Real time reporting is the key to being able to adapt and make changes as projects evolve.

Adapting the ATI

It is very evident that the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the ATI have had a major positive impact on raising the level of transparency of aid agencies. Discussions with various agencies illustrate how they are keen to getting higher scores each year, carefully analyzing the indicators to guide their actions. However, with only a limited focus and weighting of reporting on project implementation in the ATI, there is no incentive to fill this important gap. 

In its 2016 report, Publish What You Fund has indicated that it will be reviewing its indicators later this year and intends to raise the bar. It would be timely to include information on project implementation in those revisions. One challenge is how to develop indicators that are similarly relevant across a wide variety of aid agencies. Implementation information is most critical for agencies that finance longer-term projects, especially infrastructure, such as the MDBs.  One option is to consider a set of indicators to better “incentivize” the relevant agencies and refer to these as ATI+.

Reviewing the use and abuse of protecting deliberative information

The MDB’s, in their major disclosure reforms since 2010, adopted a principle that “deliberative” information would not be disclosed in order to foster candid and open dialogue within the organization and between the organization and the client country. As per the World Bank’s policy, “The Bank, like any institution or group, needs space to consider and debate, away from public scrutiny.” This excludes emails, notes, and other exchanges either internally or with member countries.

As a result, the project supervision reports, which managements use to monitor projects under execution and are generally published twice a year, were divided between disclosed versus undisclosed sections. The undisclosed sections would offer space for reporting on confidential project concerns including potential corruption. Our review of the disclosed reports suggests that most aid agencies’ task managers tend to take a cautious approach, placing most information in the undisclosed sections. Stakeholders outside the MDB, such as local civil society groups, then, often only see truncated information.

While the adoption of the “deliberative” principle is understandable, its application places a serious responsibility on management to ensure that this is applied with considerable restraint. The MDBs should review the application of this principle and assess the type of information released during implementation.

It is indeed time to raise the bar on transparency and to focus on the most critical information required to ensure results. This is not the moment for complacency with high grades.