Transparency: World Vision bad, Mercy Corps good

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And USAID Confused?

That, at least, appears to be the assessment of one Till Bruckner, a former Transparency International aid monitor in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the Peach State).

In brief, Bruckner’s complaint stems from a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) he made to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) asking for detailed descriptions of the budget and finances of ten NGOs active in U.S.-sponsored development projects in Georgia.

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Flickr, by Austin Kleon

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As a journalist who has had lots of frustrating experiences with FOIAs and trying to get answers from government agencies, I had to chuckle when reading Bruckner’s exasperated comments about waiting 14 months only to receive highly redacted copies of the information. I feel his pain.

The story begins, at least for most of us, with Bruckner’s post on AidWatch in which he singles out two locally familiar humanitarian organizations — World Vision, for asking USAID to keep its finances secret and Mercy Corps, for allowing USAID to provide the information.

Since then, both World Vision and Mercy Corps have rebutted Bruckner’s claims. World Vision issued a statement saying it did not ask USAID to redact its financials and that USAID did it on its own.

Mercy Corps also issued a much more detailed response, basically saying it had concerns about Transparency International’s request and attempted to discuss it with Bruckner. It’s not clear if Mercy Corps was even contacted by USAID about the request for the information.

It’s a long, convoluted story played out on AidWatch’s web site. Interestingly, most of the other NGOs haven’t even publicly responded.

Transparency and accountability are critical in every endeavor, and are often lacking when it comes to international development and the activities of NGOs overseas (or here, for that matter).

The fundamental question is what level of transparency makes for accountability. Asking for individual salaries or personal information is not only problematic from a privacy standpoint, it’s unlikely to be of much use in terms of assuring project accountability.

A blog post by Scott Gilmore, of Peace Dividend Trust, seems to me to put this dispute in a good context — giving Bruckner credit for raising some legitimate concerns but noting that simply opening all your books to the world is neither always wise or the best method for ensuring proper behavior.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.