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Transparency: How to Get from Consensus to Impact?

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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:
  1. Key questions: a) Who is doing what (b) to whom (c) with whom (d) why and (e) how is it going?
  2. 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."
  3. Transparency should be mostly about learning rather than punishment or blame -- see this.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.