Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Transparency

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The quest for transparency in charities has been an uphill battle. Unlike public companies, the forms that 501(c)3 charities submit are not necessarily all that thorough. They list their incoming and outgoing money, some compensation figures and they verify that they didn’t spend money on illegal activities like influencing political outcomes, but beyond that they don’t need to show the distribution or efficacy of funds.

And in point of fact getting even large and important organizations to show where they spend their money can be painfully difficult. Till Bruckner, a former coordinator at Transparency International Georgia chronicles his long and trying attempt to publicize the actual distribution of funds to Georgia following the 2008 war with Russia. At first TI Georgia requested directly from the aid organizations, but out of 12 organizations only Oxfam GB complied – the others citing “legal and contractual implication involving donors”.  So he went to the donors: much of the money was coming directly from USAID; he filed a Freedom of Information Act request for data on USAID spending on NGOs in Georgia. However:

Six months later USAID informed me that it needed the consent of the NGOs to release this data as it might contain “confidential commercial information,” thereby closing the opacity loop: first NGOs had blamed donors for not being able to release budgets, and now the biggest donor was passing the buck back to NGOs.

There was more wrangling over the months to come, but in the end “one year after my original request for information, the budgets of US-funded NGOs in Georgia remain as elusive as ever.” With little incentive to release the data, red tape can easily leave those who distributed the money free from accountability and able to release information at their own pace and to their own liking.
But this isn’t the only side to the story. Because with increased academic scrutiny and the cheapness of information sites like have brought a new vitality and ease to transparency. In fact, has such minute tracking of government money some seemingly embarrassing entries like this show up:
“Recovery Assistance – Hunger Task Force – Sundries – Limousine for J Sachs”  for which they paid $221.55. And the J Sacks in question? Jeffery Sacks, developmental economist and author of The End of Poverty. To address a commentator’s point, and others’ I’ve read, this is not really such a big deal – limousine services needn’t actually be driving abnormally oblong cars but simply a car service. And there are other mitigating possibilities.
But the important thing here is not the trivial amount of money directed to a limousine service by Irish Aid but rather the massive amount of data that you can discover and expose. With a few clicks, I can find the entire history of USAID’s donations to Georgia from 1994 – 2008 – 23 pages of carefully listed projects sortable by purpose, title, amount and so on. For every setback the fight for greater transparency faces, there are some victories to celebrate.
HT for AidData: Ryan Powers
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Filed under Organizational Models

2 responses to “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Transparency

  1. Just some other possibilities to your assumption about “limousine” service for Sachs.

    1. Many private cab and livery services call themselves “limousine services.”

    2. Sometimes a sponsoring organization would rather pay for a limousine, taxi or the real kind, than risk appearance at the event to the momentary availability of a cab.

    3. Sometimes a livery service has no sedans available and sends a limousine, usually billing only the sedan rate.

    4. Sometimes a sponsoring organization wants to send a limousine because it wants to extend an every courtesy to the person being picked up.

    I suspect that one of the reasons organizations resist total transparency is just this kind of observation, unqualified by even one possible alternative explanation. I hate to retreat behind “if you haven’t done it, don’t criticize it” because I approve of more of what you want that I find to disapprove but there is more than one set of eyes needed to observe these things. Anyway, keep going, you are on the right track most of the time.

  2. Some days, this old hack feels quite tired at bashing about among the world corrupt.

    Other days, I stumble upon a site like this a feel refreshed, ready to have another hack, stab and thrust against the opacity, the corruption, the sheer stupidity.

    Your even handed treatment of a sensitive subject reminds me to be not so exasperated.


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