“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.
The Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development Program makes grants to improve the lives of people around the world living in extreme poverty. It does this through several strategies, key among them improving the transparency and accountability of governments around the world as a way to improve services to citizens. Kevin Bohrer, a program officer with the Global Development Program, is one of those who works on these issues. Before joining the Foundation, Bohrer spent five years in Kenya as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he promoted good governance and increased transparency and accountability in the use of public resources. In Kenya, he managed a grantmaking program to support local nongovernmental organizations engaged in advocacy and watchdog activities, and coordinated the Millennium Challenge Account Threshold Program, which gives the Kenyan government technical assistance to improve its public procurement system.
Before going to Kenya, he served as a civil society specialist in the Africa bureau of USAID’s Washington office; conducted research on refugee issues in Guinea; worked with the Land Tenure Center on natural resources management and property rights issues throughout Africa; and acted as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania. Kevin has a B.S. in foreign service from Georgetown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What’s the history of transparency and accountability work?
What makes this field exciting is that it’s relatively new. You could link it to work against government corruption that first received real formal attention in the 1990s, when the World Bank became more willing to discuss the problem. A second thread was a growing interest in getting citizen access to government information.
Today, transparency and accountability have moved center stage among those who work in development. Experts are realizing that without accountable governance we will not see self-sustaining development.
What do we mean by “transparency and accountability”?
Transparency and accountability are the other side of the coin from anti-corruption work, with the focus on prevention. They involve more than addressing just corruption, which is intentional and malignant. Transparency and accountability work also deals with losses caused by bureaucratic inefficiencies and systems that are inadequate for their work.
Transparency is openness: Is the government open for inspection? It’s also about the availability of information: Can citizens learn how much money is intended for a particular public service, like schools or clinics? Can they learn whether the money is actually getting to its target? And do journalists have access to this information, and are they permitted to write about it?
Accountability is related to the watchdog function. Are there oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that a government is implementing its plans and following its rules? Can citizens check the government? For example, in a government with separation of powers, the executive branch, which creates and submits a budget, needs to be accountable to the elected officials of the legislative branch. Ultimately, of course, a government must be accountable to citizens, and we’re making grants to help citizens groups learn this watchdog function. In Uganda, for example, Parent-Teacher Associations are working to assure that money from the central government makes it to the schools in their communities. This work is crucial to alleviating poverty because it’s the poorest citizens who rely most on government services.
Is the work focused just on tracking government actions?
It can also address the flow of money from international donors and whether that money is reaching its intended destination and making a difference in people’s lives. And it can involve tracking private companies, often ones that have contracts with countries for the extraction of natural resources. Here transparency refers to whether a company discloses how much money it is giving to a country in return for the resources and whether that money reaches government coffers and is used for the benefit of its citizens.
How do different countries compare with regard to transparency and accountability?
We know more about this topic than we used to, in part through one of our grantees, International Budget Partnership, which publishes something called the Open Budget Index. The most recent iteration of this survey, which tracks the government budget information available in theory and practice, was just released in February. At the top of the list of countries that make information about their budgets available are the United Kingdom, South Africa, France, and the United States. Some with low rankings are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia. It suffices to say there are far more countries scoring below 60 on a scale of 100 than above. And, interestingly, most of the countries with low rankings are also countries that depend on revenues from natural resources. There is strong correlation between the two factors, which is why we want to look at transparency around all the streams of money that make up a government’s budget. Not every country is rated yet, although International Budget Partnership adds more to the index each round. Its next step will be to survey data at the sub-national level – how provinces and states perform – since that’s where much of the government money for public services is actually spent.
How is information technology helping with this work?
Technology is helping a lot. In the past, a legal right to information often proved meaningless because the means to obtain it didn’t exist. Now, budgets can be posted on the Internet in addition to circulating in print. This changes the power dynamic quite a bit.
We do a lot of technology-related work in partnership not just with grantees but with other foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This is a pretty cutting-edge topic. Another foundation working in this area is Google.Org, whose engineers are using mapping capabilities to help advance transparency and accountability.
Can you describe some of the forms our transparency and accountability work takes with our grantees?
Sure. Let’s start by looking at the revenue side, when money comes into a country. Our grantee Revenue Watch International works both globally on international initiatives and locally with partners in developing countries to make sure those initiatives are making a difference. One example goes by the unwieldy name of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. That’s a global effort to get countries with an abundance of natural resources to agree to a set of principles whereby the government is required to disclose the revenue it receives from selling resources to corporations. Countries that sign on also pledge to partner with civil society organizations to monitor if the agreed-upon revenue is being deposited in government coffers and being used to benefit citizens, particularly the poorest.
Despite popular perceptions, it’s not always the case that corruption is the only problem. Often, officials at the highest level of government don’t have the skills or training to negotiate the best deal possible for their country. So organizations like Revenue Watch International also work with governments to negotiate better deals with corporations.
Hewlett’s Global Development Program has had great success working with grantees in Mexico to improve access to government information. Can the lessons learned there be applied elsewhere?
They can. What we’ve learned in Mexico is that you need to change tactics in response to opportunities as they arise. For example, if you gain legal access to information, as our grantees did in Mexico, it may seem as if you’re making great progress. But you have to be prepared for political backlash when these citizens and watchdog groups start to exercise their rights to information.
I’d also say to be successful in this work it’s important to fund an ecosystem of organizations working together on different parts of the problem, not isolated projects.
Finally, I think we’ve learned that doing this work is very cost effective.
That raises a good question. How do we measure our progress in this work?
One measure by which we hope to gauge global progress is the Open Budget Index, mentioned earlier. Until recently we didn’t have any cross-country standards for this work. Beyond that, we and other funders are still coming up with standards.
For example, how does one measure the impact of money that isn’t diverted and reaches clinics and schools? We have individual studies that show the powerful impact of this work, but because it is such a new field we do not have cross-country data and standards that can be tracked over time. To help develop them, we’re working with the African Economic Research Consortium, based in Nairobi, and the World Bank to create a service delivery index, which will gauge the quality of government services citizens actually receive. It will focus on primary education, basic health care, and perhaps access to clean water.