Why Transparency Matters

Part 1: Why does transparency matter?

Moderator: Julie Montgomery, Director of Innovation and Learning, InterAction

“Why Transparency Matters” is a six-part blog series featuring AidData, Development Initiatives, Foundation Center, Open Aid Partnership, Oxfam America, and Publish What You Fund. These organizations are coming together with InterAction to discuss transparency – why it matters, what it means to be transparent, what impact transparency has on aid effectiveness, and more. In this first blog, we asked contributors to tell us why transparency is important to their organizations and why someone should care about this issue.

Transparency is an important issue for InterAction, our members, and the broader international development community. Access to high quality, timely and relevant data leads to better decision-making, which in turn leads to greater effectiveness. This is why improving the transparency of our community has been one of InterAction’s strategic goals for the past several years; why our CEO Sam Worthington hoped 2014 would be a “milestone year for NGO transparency and accountability.” This is also why in June, at our 30th annual conference, we launched our global NGO Aid Map, an online tool that aims to increase the amount of publicly available data on international development and humanitarian response by providing detailed project information from our members. More effective development requires all of us – donors, governments, NGOs and the private sector – to be transparent.

Read more on what transparency means for other organizations…


Samantha Custer (AidData): A Nepali government official asks why international donors are under-investing in his country’s poorest province. In Uganda, a smallholder farmer reports that his family never received a goat from a government-run rural development program. A PhD student and a health worker in the United States assess whether antiretroviral treatments are reducing HIV/AIDS prevalence among expecting mothers in Malawi.

What do these people have in common? They need transparent, relevant and hyper-local information at their fingertips to achieve their goals. In particular, they need to know who is funding what, where, and to what effect. They aren’t the only ones.

If you want to increase donor coordination, hold a government accountable for results, or allocate resources for greatest impact, transparency matters to you too. At AidData, we believe that transparent data can be transformational – if it is in the hands of citizens, scholars and officials who know how to use it.

Joni Hillman (Development Initiatives): At Development Initiatives, we believe that transparency has a significant role to play in ending global poverty. Information is power, and greater openness can transform the relationship between citizens and governments. Financial resources, including aid, other types of development finance (from NGOs, foundations and private actors) and domestic resources in developing countries can be more effectively targeted at poverty eradication if data on them is made available in an open and timely way:

  • Decision-makers can make more evidence-based allocation choices;
  • Actors at local and national level – like CSOs, journalists, parliamentarians, and community actors – can hold governments to account for the services they deliver and the money they spend.

In this way, open information can encourage more effective and accountable institutions and better outcomes for citizens.

Bradford K. Smith (The Foundation Center): Foundations use private wealth to serve the public good, for which they receive a tax exemption in return. While some have argued that the tax exemption does not legally compel foundations to behave in any particular way, foundations' challenges are more perceptual than legal. No sector – government, church, business, or charitable – gets a free pass in the world of 24/7 media, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, crowdsourcing, and digital everything. Why should foundations? Collectively, America's foundations control more than $660 billion in assets, spend nearly $49 billion a year in grants and on programs, and, in some localities and on some issues, are the major players. And as foundations strive to become more strategic and effective, their impact and influence will grow – as will the curiosity, praise, criticism, and scrutiny they attract. Essentially, when foundations trade isolation for communication they strengthen their own legacy, as outlined in this short video.

Elizabeth Dodds (Open Aid Partnership): In the broadest sense, transparency is fundamental for effective decision-making. The most frequently cited argument for transparency is that opening up information should enable citizens to more actively participate in policymaking and hold leaders accountable for their decisions, ultimately influencing which decisions are taken and why. At a more basic level, transparency also matters for informing the decision-makers themselves, by making sure they have the necessary information to formulate policy, improve service provision, and manage resources.

When speaking about aid transparency, we think both channels of influence are crucial for open aid data to lead to better decision-making, both in terms of more efficient and more accountable use of resources. Publishing granular and timely information on development programs can lead to knowledge of who is funding what and where within a country – knowledge that is necessary for governments to be able to lead in coordinating development partners and direct resources to sectors or areas that need them most, and for citizens to voice their feedback and engage with policymakers on development interventions that matter to them.

David Saldivar (Oxfam America): Imagine trying to implement a community health project with no information about the budget, timeline, or intended beneficiaries. For projects supported by foreign aid, transparency is essential to ensure that projects are suited to local needs. Timely, detailed, comprehensive information about how much aid is coming into a country – and where and how it is spent – enables governments to plan and manage development resources and citizens to demand accountability. Achieving inclusive economic growth, protection of human rights and access to justice and essential public services depends on active citizens engaging with effective states. Foreign aid cannot create this engagement, but aid can help facilitate responsive and accountable governance and complement other sources of support for development. For aid to be effective in this catalyzing role however, citizens and partner country governments need to know what donors are doing. At Oxfam America, we believe transparency is the essential first step to country ownership of development.

Catalina Reyes (Publish What You Fund): Aid transparency is a key component of aid effectiveness. It is difficult to improve results and outcomes unless you know what you are measuring. Aid transparency is about opening up information so it is available to all interested users in a timely, comparable, comprehensive, and accessible manner. If done right, transparency allows us to compare donor investments and activities. Donors and recipients can make better decisions on the allocation and spending of their funds when high quality aid information is available. All stakeholders in development should care about aid transparency as aid information can transform development outcomes and results.

Want to learn more?

Join the discussion by following #TransparencyMatters on Twitter and tune in for a live discussion on October 6th from 12:00-1:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time, to learn more and chat with the authors.

Contributing Authors:

Samantha Custer, Director of Policy and Communications, AidData. Working in international development for 14 years, Custer’s diverse experience cuts across traditional boundaries between research, policy and practice. Wearing many hats along the way, she has designed grassroots development projects, coordinated advocacy campaigns, developed policy recommendations, conducted research and monitored results. Custer has co-authored seven World Bank publications on open data, open government and citizen engagement, and assisted former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to teach a class on U.S. foreign policy. Previously, she oversaw multilingual education projects with SIL International, coordinated the advocacy efforts of the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group for UNESCO and conducted performance audits of Save the Children’s sponsorship-funded programs. Custer holds master's degrees in Foreign Service and Public Policy from Georgetown University.

Joni Hillman, Aid Transparency Programme Manager, Development Initiatives and the IATI Secretariat. Hillman is a member of the IATI Secretariat, managing the Technical Team to provide support to a wide range of development cooperation actors to publish good quality IATI data, to produce guidance and materials to help people publish and use IATI data and to look after the development and integrity of the IATI Standard. Previously, Hillman spent six years at Bond, the UK NGO network, delivering programs on NGO transparency, donor relations and development effectiveness. She has a MA in History from the University of Edinburgh and a MSc in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

Bradford K. Smith, President, The Foundation Center. Before joining the Foundation Center in 2008, Smith was president of the Oak Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, a major family foundation with programs and grant activities in 41 countries in North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. With the Ford Foundation, he worked as a representative in Brazil before being promoted to vice president in the New York headquarters, responsible for the Global Peace and Social Justice Program, the foundation's largest program area. During his 10-year tenure as vice president, the program provided hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations working on the issues of human rights, international cooperation, governance, and civil society in the U.S. and around the world, while supervising field operations on three continents and overseeing the creation of TrustAfrica. Smith holds a M.A. in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York and a B.A. in anthropology and ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan.

Elizabeth Dodds, Consultant, Open Aid Partnership. Dodds is a consultant with the Open Aid Partnership (OAP), a multi-stakeholder aid transparency initiative hosted in the World Bank Group's Innovation Labs. In her current position with the Bank, she supports OAP efforts to engage civil society, journalists and citizens in development decision-making through the use of open data. Prior to joining the Bank, she gained private sector experience as a financial regulatory associate for BNY Mellon Asset Servicing. Dodds received a master's degree in public administration from the London School of Economics and a bachelor's degree in International Relations and French from Colgate University.

David Saldivar, Policy & Advocacy Advisor for Aid Effectiveness, Oxfam America. Saldivar leads Oxfam’s policy and campaigns work on transparency in foreign aid, and contributes to Oxfam’s advocacy and programming on accountable governance.  Prior to joining Oxfam, Saldivar worked on legal reform and institutional capacity in the justice sector, served in the Peace Corps in Jordan, and worked with the federal judiciary in San Francisco. Saldivar received his JD from Stanford and an LLM in Rule of Law for Development from Loyola University Chicago.

Catalina Reyes, Senior Advocacy Associate, Publish What You Fund. Reyes works on U.S. development policy and foreign assistance transparency. Her role includes directly engaging with the U.S. agencies included in the annual Index and with U.S. counterparts who work on aid reform and aid effectiveness. Reyes also covers Publish What You Fund's engagement with the Open Government Partnership process, and monitors its implications to the aid transparency agenda. Her background includes education reform and human rights advocacy in the nonprofit sector.  She holds a BA in Psychology from Arizona State University and a MA in International Affairs from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Want to read more? Check out the other blogs in the series: