Transparency in Development Assistance

By Ryan Powers

worldbankOver at Bill Easterly’s blog, Till Bruckner writes about how hard it is to track foreign aid once the money leaves the hands of governments and/or multilateral organizations. He writes:

[I]nternational development organizations have been advocating for greater transparency for years, teaching citizens that they have the right to know how their money is spent, ordering community-based organizations to publicly display the budgets of their micro-projects and telling local governments that they have the duty to provide financial information to those they serve. Years ago, I asked an NGO manager what he considered the greatest success of the project that he was running. “We finally got the district government to post its budget in the mayor’s office, where everybody can see it,” he proudly told me. When I suggested that he post his own project’s budget in his office, he recoiled. “This is an experimental project, so the overheads are very high,” he replied. “So it would be very difficult to explain.”

Weird. But this does hit on an issue that I’ve long thought was a bit strange. Indeed, for the better part of its history, the World Bank has been the target of protests and activist outrage. One of the complaints you hear again and again is that the World Bank just isn’t transparent enough. But if you wanted to read detailed project planning and implementation documents on an international development project, the World Bank is one of the only institutions who posts them online for any one to see. Nearly every development project has hundreds of pages of documents available for download. And the Bank has been doing this for years.

Contrast that with nearly any of the bilateral donors in the OECD. At best, you can get a short paragraph-long description — and most are shorter than that — on projects that are moving millions of tax-payer dollars (or euros!) out the door. This is all a long way of saying, Bruckner is right: it is time for both granting and implementing organizations to start following the World Bank’s transparency lead.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for some summer beach reading on the recent history of the Bank, check out the World’s Banker.