International aid groups lack transparency

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International aid groups represent more than $130 billion in annual cash flows, and 80 percent of the groups controlling that money fail to provide some basic information about where and how that money is used.

Those are the findings of a recent report from Publish What You Fund, a group focused on a global campaign for aid transparency. Though the scores for most groups are low, the results of the 2012 report are an improvement from past years. The average score of a 41 percent transparency rating this year comes after an average score of just 34 percent in 2011.

More than 70 international aid groups were scored based on 43 criteria for the report and received a grade between 0 and 100 percent, with 100 being the best. Some of the main criteria were based on the standard for publishing aid information set by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which includes sharing in a “timely, comprehensive, comparable and accessible way.”

Of the 72 agencies assessed this year, only the UK Department for International Development and the World Bank International Development Association received a “good” score – or higher than 80 percent. Thirteen other groups received a “fair” rating and the remaining 57 groups fell into the “moderate,” “poor,” or “very poor categories.”

The lower-ranking groups had their share of familiar names, including USAID (scoring 50 percent), US PEPFAR (49 percent), the US Treasury (44 percent), the US Department of State (31 percent), and UNICEF (14 percent). These low scores should cause policymakers to consider whether aid money is being allocated most effectively. What opportunities have been missed if aid spending is as difficult to track, analyze and coordinate as these scores suggest?

The good news to come out of the study is that some of the bottom-ranking organizations seem to be aware of the need to improve and will hopefully be further prodded toward action by their poor report cards. UNICEF, for example, recently signed on to the IATI and its board has announced it will publish all audits online from 2012 forward.

The Publish What You Fund report came with specific suggestions about how each group could improve. For the government aid organizations in particular, the report should also provoke a dialogue about standards and accountability for international aid. The fact that the private Gates Foundation scored 46 percent, double the transparency score of the U.S. Department of Defense at 23 percent, shows that both private and public entities have plenty of room for improvement. 

Without regular, informative and accessible reporting, the public can only guess as to how international aid organizations handle money. Improving transparency, in this sense, is a win for the public and the organizations: a higher degree of accountability to contributors could instill a greater sense of trust among the public in international aid efforts and, ideally, multiply the intended efforts of international aid.

We’ll be watching for next year’s report to see just how many groups take those steps.

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