For the second time in recent weeks aid policy wonks will have the opportunity to argue about the best way to measure the relative transparency of different donors. Publish What You Fund (PWYF) has just published a massive report that attempts to assess the transparency of 30 donors. While PWYF looks at three broad areas of transparency (equally weighted) and seven specific indicators of transparency, they also provide an interactive toolthat allows web users to re-weight the distinct areas of transparency based on their own judgments of their relative importance. A few weeks ago Brookings and CGD produced a Quality of Official Development Aid (QuODA) Report where one of the features they measured was the relative transparency of different donors. Unlike the QuODA report, the PWYF assessment focuses exclusively on transparency.
The headlines of the new PWYF report are not all that surprising for people who study development finance. But the fact that they confirm conventional wisdom and echo many of the findings in the QuODA report, should increase our confidence in their conclusions. Here are the headlines: Information provided by donors is not timely or easily comparable; The World Bank, Netherlands, and UK are the most transparent donors; Japan, Austria, Portugal, and Italy are the least transparent donors; And we would all benefit from an international standard (like the one suggested here) specifying the type and format of data that donors were obligated to make public.
Over the weekend I'm hoping to find time to compare the QuODA metrics with the PWYF metrics, but for now let me throw out a few quick reactions.
1. I'm very happy to see all these transparency assessments. Such reports provide transparency advocates within aid organizations with evidence to help them push for greater openness. These reports also provide ammunition for external critics who are advocating for access to more information. Both QuODA and PWYF promise to publish their assessments on an annual basis. This will allow all observers to see which donors are becoming more transparent in both absolute and relative terms. I'm hoping these publications promote a "race to the top" in terms of transparency.
2. Like the QuODA report, the PWYF assessment looks mostly at the usual suspects. The authors do include GAVI alongside traditional donors, but in the future it would be nice to include more donors in these studies.
3. If you focus exclusively on "commitment to aid transparency," which includes participation in IATI, reporting to the CRS, and whether a donor has a robust FOIA-like regime, then Ireland comes out as the most transparent donor in the study. Had I read the measures for this variable six months ago, I'd have been skeptical of their actual impact on current transparency levels. However, researchers at AidData who are currently trying to convince non-traditional donors to give us access to their aid information are having a much easier time in countries that do have enforceable FOIA-like policies (India) than in those that do not (China and Russia). Also, while IATI participation may not matter directly in 2010, it is very likely to be a good predictor of transparency going forward.
4. If you focus exclusively on "transparency to recipient governments," then multilateral development banks take 4 of the top 5 positions. This is especially noteworthy since there are only four MDBs among the 30 donors in the study! Could this result follow from the fact that recipient governments are members of those MDBs and thus help to determine the policies of the MDBs? Some recent academic research (beware of shameless self-promotion) suggests a mechanism for such a conclusion.
I'm encouraged that so many people in the academic, advocacy, and policy worlds are focussing increased attention on aid transparency. If we keep this up we are likely to learn something and to to increase the effectiveness of development outcomes.