Why Transparency Matters Part 2: What does it mean to be transparent?

Why Transparency Matters Series Part 2: What does it mean to be transparent?

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 second blog, we asked organizations to tell us about what it means to be transparent.

Since 2009, InterAction has been working on a tool that enables our members to collectively be more transparent about their work around the world in a standardized way: NGO Aid Map. To date, nearly 130 organizations have contributed data on more than 6,600 projects in around 140 countries. Being transparent means not looking for reasons not to share data, but asking what else it would be useful to share. It means thinking about the information people need and finding ways to make it available. Being transparent is a process; you start with what you have and then work to improve over time.

Read more on what others organizations think about what is needed to be transparent…


Samantha Custer (AidData): Being a transparent organization isn’t a destination; it’s a sustained commitment to sharing information as the rule, not the exception. Turning this commitment into action may happen all at once or in stages. It requires ensuring sufficient data architecture and incentives to change.

Donors, civil society and governments create vast stores of information on development projects and public services. Budgets and contracts can help us follow the money and track how development dollars are invested. Progress reports and evaluations can critically shed light on the impact of these investments relative to their intended outcomes.

Publishing aggregate financial information and country-level strategies is a starting point. Timely reporting of project-level documentation on specific development activities and locations of benefiting communities down to the district, village or street corner level is another crucial step. Opening up data on project results is also critical to monitor progress, evaluate performance, and plan future activities.

Joni Hillman (Development Initiatives): As the technical lead for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), Development Initiatives supports actors ranging from governments and multilaterals to small NGOs to publish open data on their activities to the IATI Standard. This is resulting in an ever-increasing amount of information on a wide range of aid, development and humanitarian activities being publicly available in a comparable, machine-readable format. However, publishing open data is only the first step towards true transparency; we must also work to ensure people can use data as the basis for accessible and targeted information that can be used to inform decision-making, both internal and external, and influence to effect genuine change. This approach requires a shift in the culture of producing and sharing data, but also in how an organization then repurposes and uses both its own data (e.g. for internal decision-making or external communications) and uses others’ data (e.g. to inform advocacy or fundraising).

Janet Camarena (The Foundation Center): Transparency is, in a word, openness. A foundation that operates transparently is one that provides information about its work, operations and processes, and what it is learning in an open, accessible, and timely manner. For foundations operating in today’s digital age, transparency also really means having a virtual presence in addition to a physical one so anyone can quickly learn what you do, why and how you do it, and what difference it makes in the world. 

For foundations interested in learning more about the steps to transparency or how to define or improve foundation transparency practices, the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment tool serves as a helpful road map of transparency practices assessing disclosures pertaining to governance, financial, staffing, grantmaking, and performance measurement.

Elizabeth Dodds (Open Aid Partnership): To be considered transparent very much depends on the degree of transparency and overall objective an organization or initiative aims to achieve. For us, transparency means going beyond publishing stores of data or documents, to helping users gather, access, analyze, and translate data into actionable information. Achieving this degree of transparency would require thoughtful consideration of, what is the “right” data to release – is it relevant, in what format, for whom, and how would they use it?

This is challenging because this degree of transparency is often a departure from the norm, and requires changing the culture of and incentives for information sharing within an organization or government. One way to establish transparency as a priority is by creating and committing to standards for publishing data, such as the IATI Standard or Open Contracting Standard. This not only encourages that certain data is published systematically, and is comparable, timely and comprehensive, but also creates incentives for compliance by collaborating with others to establish a norm of openness.

David Saldivar (Oxfam America): Transparency is like development – it’s both a quality, and an ongoing, active process. For an organization to be transparent, it has to embrace transparency as a value that is key to fulfilling the organization’s mission. For a development agency, this means adopting an approach to transparency rooted in the understanding that sharing information is essential to designing, implementing, and evaluating programs that will be successful in achieving better development outcomes.

But adopting transparency as a value in principle is not enough; an organization has to “do transparency” within its partnerships to realize the benefits, and that requires an ongoing dialogue about needs and interests. A truly transparent organization actively fosters this dialogue and engages with its peers, partners, and other audiences, to understand what information is most relevant and useful to share, and makes changes based on these expressed needs. 

Catalina Reyes (Publish What You Fund): Donors can make aid transparent by publishing their current information to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). An agency should publish their activities in a comparable format and include some basic information such as project names, descriptions, and beginning and end dates. Donors should also publish value added information such as results, evaluations, sub-national location, and conditions.

In order to meet their commitments on aid transparency, donors must develop and make their plan for implementation publicly available. This should include what resources will be allocated to deliver on aid transparency, by whom, and by when. For example, USAID is planning to develop a cost management plan as part of their agenda in the agency’s Open Government Plan.

When the information starts flowing it needs to be used. For that it needs to be promoted within agencies and with external partners. Donors’ current aid information can be valuable to their own staff and help managing the resources available. A transparent agency can also inform partners, other donors, CSOs, recipients of aid, etc. on current and future aid flows so all can manage and coordinate aid better. 

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.

Janet Camarena, Director, San Francisco Office/Project Lead, Glasspockets, The Foundation Center. Camarena has served as director of the Foundation Center-San Francisco office since 2001 and has worked for the Center in a variety of roles since 1995. As director her responsibilities include leading a team of six professionals in offering extensive outreach for the Center's resources and services in the Bay Area and beyond, planning and overseeing educational programming offered in the Western region, carrying out donor development and cultivation, producing and conducting online programming such as the Philanthropy Chat podcast series, and most recently leading the creation, management, and redesign of the Glasspockets web site, which is dedicated to promoting foundation transparency.

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.