The Depths Of Transparency


A recent article on Humanosphere about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew attention to both how, in a relatively short space of time, this organisation has become remarkably dominant in the aid and development sectors. Laurie Gannet, interviewed in the article, highlighted how, particularly in the area of health issues (especially when it comes to the effort to combat malaria):

“What we think is global health, how we define this mission, is increasingly decided by a relatively small number of Americans living in Seattle, Washington.”

The B&M Foundation is the largest philanthropy organisation in the world. It collects its money from a plethora of privately wealthy individuals – notably the 3rd richest man in the world, Warren Buffet (Gates is 2nd) – and funds major numerous projects all over the world, making it one of the most important actors in geopolitics, not to mention within the third sector itself.

Reading this article made me think about the transparency agenda, one of the big movements in development particularly since its endorsement by Hillary Clinton at the Busan conference on aid effectiveness in November last year. In its most simple form: People calling for transparency want to combat corruption as one of the major stumbling blocks for development, naturally it follows that development organisations should aim to be entirely transparent themselves. There are numerous initiatives that work towards this aim who will be able to give much more information:

(There are many more but these are the three that came to mind immediately)

Is it enough for the development community to insist that NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other development agencies to be transparent if they are being funded by, often completely, non-transparent grant giving bodies?

The Humanosphere article goes on to say that the B&M Foundation is a lot less opaque than it used to be and that the lack of transparency or accountability comes from a lack of organisation – due to its rapid increase in size and power – rather than any aim for secrecy. Regardless, it remains one of the big movers and shakers in not just the aid/development world, but in the transparency movement itself. Take a look at some of the big organisations pushing a transparency agenda (at least intermittently, this is pretty much all of them) and you don’t have to look hard for B&M backing.

'Students and ONE for Africa Rising' training day photo

There has been a concerted effort by pro aid organisations to push for the UK to commit to the aid budget to represent 0.7% of the national budget in the last year and don’t expect it to go away – there is real concern that, in financially difficult times, many leading national donors will cut foreign aid to gain quick political points with the under-strain domestic voter. While I am not a dyed-in-the-wool aid fanatic, I support the 0.7% target and will be helping ONE to campaign for it in 2012. A large part of the pro-aid campaign revolves around aid becoming ‘smart’ – it must deliver results and be held accountable for its failures. This cannot happen without it embracing transparency.

For more information on how aid can work well look at ONE’s Living Proof micro-site

As you can see from the site, Bill Gates is an important advocate for aid and has spoken publicly about the importance of ‘legally binding transparency requirements‘ being incorporated into the aid agenda. These things lead me to agree with what the article’s author, Tom Paulson, said on Humanosphere about the perceived lack of transparency of the B&M foundation – it’s a result of accident rather than design.

Just last week, the International Development Committee of the UK House of Commons issued a statement indicating that some of their fears of foreign aid expenditure came from worries surrounding transparency and accountability:

[Chair of the Committee] Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce… said there are “considerable risks” — like money getting squandered — in spending aid money in fragile states.

“The Government must be frank and open about this if it wants to convince the public that its approach is the right one, both morally and politically”

As pro-aid advocates start gearing up for advocacy campaigns directed at the UK government it seems that the key battlegrounds seem to be transparency and accountability. These are both areas which NGOs, CSOs and activists should be able to dominate their public opponents – after all, certain parts of the media and certain parts of Parliament have taken heavy beatings on such matters in recent years. Game on.

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