Does Transparency = Accountability = Effectiveness? Not so sure…

Tserovani IDP settlement

A common narrative in many ‘open’ development projects goes along the lines of ‘provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change’, writes Duncan Edwards from the Institute of Development Studies in The revolution will NOT be in Open Data. In essence, because of the newness of this field, we only know what we THINK happens, we don’t know what REALLY happens because there is a paucity of documentation and evidence.”

In 2008, in the aftermath of its armed conflict with Russia and the separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia offers one of the best possible environments to test the above assumption. And Till Bruckner’s thesis, ‘Aid without Accountability’ (buy on Amazon UKUS or download free PDF – 1.3 Mb) does this precisely: a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what really happens when everything seems to be in place for transparency to translate into positive outcomes. The country has “a functional, reasonably competent and (arguably) democratically elected government throughout the crisis, writes Bruckner. (…) Its population is almost universally literate and access to television, radio and telephones is widespread (…). In addition, the Georgian media is probably quite competent and free compared to that found in most post-conflict settings, opposition political parties are vocal in their criticisms of the government, and domestic think-tanks and watchdog organizations operate freely“.

Beginning in October 2008, the Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol builds and coordinates a dedicated team at Transparency International Georgia, including Georgian-speaking anthropologists, to monitor the delivery of a multi-billion dollar international aid package for emergency relief operations targeting tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) with food aid and housing. Their field work provides a rare bottom-up view of processes and power dynamics at play in international aid, and strong evidence to back Bruckner’s assertion that the “link between overall aid accountability and aid effectiveness is oversimplified and deeply misleading both in theory and in practice“.

I will not try to summarize a 129-page thesis (it’s an easy read – go for it) but here is a taste of it through a few excerpts.

‘Phantom transparency’

T. Bruckner’s main conclusion is that “The concept of accountability is meaningless without power. An organization cannot be accountable towards stakeholders that are powerless to reward and/or punish it. (…) An organization may choose to listen to powerless stakeholders’ concerns, it may choose to explain its actions to them, and it may even choose to meet their expectations – but it will never be obliged by them to do so. In such contexts, an organization can be said to be more or less responsive to such stakeholders, but it will never be accountable to them”.

The fact that civil society organizations were invited to sit at the table to oversee the delivery of aid, as legitimate stakeholders alongside the government and donors, had little to do with accountability, according to Bruckner.  « It appears that donors brought NGOs to the table as part of a coalition-forming exercise. As donor and NGO expectations regarding IDP choice and participation were aligned, donors included NGOs in the talks to amplify the volume of their own expectations. In this case, legitimacy was not asserted bottom-up by powerful stakeholders themselves, but was instead conferred top-down by an already powerful stakeholder coalition eager to add extra players to its own side. »

Aid without AccountabilityMoreover, « The empirical data from Georgia unequivocally supports the contention that aid providers regularly manipulate information for their benefit, in particular to reduce their accountability towards (potentially) critical stakeholder groups both at home and abroad.  (…) Mountains of carefully selected and edited data omit any information that stakeholders could use to detect aid failures or generate unwelcome expectations, while at the same time shielding the aid industry from charges of opacity. The result is not transparency, but phantom transparency: the provision of large quantities of pre-screened data to hide the fact that some critical data is missing. »

Another common assumption that is challenged by this case study is the notion that power is on the supply side of transparency alone. The aid transparency -> accountability -> effectiveness nexus requires diverse groups with divergent interests, including those on the demand side of transparency, to take their full responsibility in making the equation work. « People were individually powerless to bring a giant international organization to heel, and collectively unable to mobilize and aggregate their demands. Perhaps more surprisingly, the domestic actors (…) who in theory could have acted on citizens’ behalf failed to effectively fulfil their role as intermediaries« . One such key intermediary was the Georgian media which, according to Bruckner, completely failed to  play a watchdog function. “Three factors explain this weak coverage. First, the Georgian media (…) has few resources and very weak capacity, and tends to focus on covering easily reported ‘official’ events in the capital rather than independently developing stories. Second, the media was subject to considerable government pressure not to cover IDP issues in a negative light. (…) The third and most important factor (…) was audience disinterest in IDP-related issues. In the immediate aftermath of the traumatic 2008 war, (…) most Georgians had had enough of depressing news. The IDP issue was ‘very emotional’, and most people simply wanted to ‘forget’. Meanwhile, journalists felt it was their ‘patriotic duty’ to ‘keep morale up’. In any case, reporters were more interested in covering political issues; a roundtable on IDP issues convened for Georgian journalists failed to draw a single participant.

Book description (Amazon): Aid without Accountability tells the story of how 4.5 billion dollars in international aid to Georgia helped the rich and (sometimes) the poor in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. From America’s controversial « military-humanitarian intervention » into the conflict to the UN-led distribution of inedible food, from lavish cash injections for Georgian banks to the shoddy construction of resettlement camps for refugees, the book documents how the aid industry routinely caters to powerful hidden agendas while evading accountability to the poor.

About Till Bruckner: websiteLinkedIn.

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