Changing the way we change the world

Is transparency a one-way mirror?

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

I just attended an event called “On the Cutting Edge of Aid Effectiveness” about the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).   There were more people there than I expected in late July in DC.  The speakers – Gayle Smith (Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director, National Security Council) and Sheila Herrling
 (Vice President for Policy and Evaluation, Millennium Challenge Corporation) – were articulate and understandable.

The MCC began in 2004, so by now there must be some interesting information generated.  I was particularly interested to learn more about what transparency meant to MCC. What information is shared, with whom, and how?

Sheila admitted that it is risky business being transparent, because there is not a lot of patience for failed projects or even mixed results.  I would agree, but my perspective is that I’m much more interested in seeing an organization that is learning from its mistakes than one who ignores or is simply ignorant of its mistakes.  So good for them, and even better, the MCC has committed to independent impact evaluations.

During the Q&A session I asked the panelists something like “How does transparency play out practically for MCC? Is transparency like a one-way mirror in interrogation rooms that you see on police TV shows?  It seems that more and more information is becoming available to the practitioners and donors but the beneficiaries or customers are still just being observed?”  I believe this question applies to the international development sector broadly.

Sheila answered that all the information is available on their website, and they are trying to share information more in consultations.  While their website is quite detailed and fairly easy to understand, I have to wonder how many of the beneficiaries (defined by MCC as those whose incomes are increased due to MCC investments) have access to the Internet.

I do like their country scorecards because they are graphical and show movement in the indicators over time (see an example from Afghanistan below).Score card for Afghanistan

There is a huge amount of information to digest on the MCC website, which is a great start, but pretty intimidating.  I look forward to diving into it further.   It appears from their Guidelines for the Consultative Process that MCC recognizes the need make this rich information more digestible for the beneficiaries during the consultations with public groups and stakeholders.

At a practical level, detailed consultations with particular demographic groups often require special methods and tools (to accommodate language barriers; overcome social norms regarding gender, class or ethnicity; or to reach traditionally excluded groups). In these cases MCC can offer some technical support or training, but countries should be prepared to identify additional local specialists as needed.

There is an encouraging trend of development organizations to make more information available publicly, including funds spent and results. My hope is that it is not just directed towards the donors, but also made available and accessible (using appropriate language, maps, graphs, putting it in context and so on) to the people they are trying to help.

After all, it is to beneficiaries that we need to be most transparent and accountable.

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