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Today in the Toronto Star: End the silence on aid

Sorry for the cross post – I have this piece today on the opinion page of the Toronto Star. They’ve actually done a nice graphic for it so do encourage you to check it out.

End the silence on aid

For the past two weeks, Canadians have slowly watched the minister of international development, Bev Oda, implode. Caught in a slowly escalating scandal, it’s become clear that the minister misled Parliament — and the public — about how the government chooses whom it funds to do international development work.

The scandal around Oda, however, is a metaphor for a much larger problem in Canada’s foreign aid. The world is dividing itself into donors who hold forth an open model of evidence, accountability and, above all, transparency, and those who cling to a model of patronage, ideology and opacity.

So the question is: Where will Canada land on this debate? So far, the answer is not promising.

Internationally, the Kairos decision suggests Canada is on the wrong side of the divide. Indeed, the gap between CIDA and the world’s leading institutions is growing. Consider a recent report by the U.K.-based international advocacy group Publish What You Fund. Of the 30 institutions assessed in its 2010 report on aid transparency, the Canadian International Development Agency ranked 23rd. Among countries, Canada ranked 15th out of 22 (the Netherlands, U.K. and Ireland held the top three spots).

We are, by any metric, near the bottom of the pack. For a country and a government that prides itself on accountability and transparency, it’s a damning assessment.

What’s all the more frustrating is that transparency isn’t just about accountability. It’s about effectiveness and saving taxpayers’ money — something our major allies have already figured out.

So while Canada’s international development minister fights allegations of making the decision-making process more opaque, a coalition of leading countries is moving forward — without Canada — to do the opposite.

Take, for example, the newly founded International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). A coalition of donor governments, developing countries and NGOs, the IATI has a single goal: to improve aid effectiveness by making information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.

It’s a deeply pragmatic exercise, one far removed from the partisan politics around aid seen in Canada. In one of its first reports, it outlines how setting up systems to make aid data available would involve a one-time cost of between $50,000 and $500,000, but would save taxpayers in countries like Canada several times that amount every year.

Part of these savings would come just from reducing bureaucracy. Making data publicly available would eliminate the need for civil servants to respond to duplicate information requests from international organizations, other governments and Canadian organizations. Instead, the relevant information could just be downloaded. It’s the kind of efficiency we expect from our government.

It’s also the kind of transparency Canadians are starting to see elsewhere. The World Bank — at one time loathed for its opacity — has made transparency a core value of its operations. It recently launched an open data portal where it shares enormous quantities of information on the global economy and aid projects. It has also promised much more and is slowly rolling out a “mapping for results” website where every project the bank funds and how much money it receives can be viewed on a downloadable map.

Canada sits on the sidelines while others move forward implementing proposals that could — ironically — fund several Kairoses every year.

The costs aren’t borne just by taxpayers, but also by Canadian NGOs. They have to provide the same information, but in different forms, to every government and organization that funds them. This means aid workers spend precious time and money filling out CIDA’s unique forms. Repeat this cost over the hundreds of projects that CIDA funds and the collective waste is enormous.

Perhaps more importantly, making our aid more transparent and accessible would close another gap — our inability to measure our effectiveness. One of the reasons countries like the U.K., Denmark and Sweden have signed up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative is so they can more easily compare the projects they fund with one another. These are countries that are serious about getting bang for their buck — they want to compare the evidence, see which projects work, and which ones fail.

It’s a lesson leading Canadian organizations are taking to heart. Engineers Without Borders, for example, regularly publishes a “failure report” in which it outlines which of its projects didn’t work and why. This honest, open and evidence-based approach to development is exactly what we need to demand of our government. Anything less constitutes a waste of our tax dollars.

And yet, the current debate in Parliament suggests we may be mapping a different route — one of opaque, ideologically driven development that is blind to both effectiveness and accountability. This serves neither Canadians nor donor recipients well.

Regardless of whether Oda resigns, Canadians should not lose sight of the larger issue and opportunity. We are in the midst of a global movement for international development aid transparency.

The benefits are clear, our allies are present, and even five of our focus recipient countries have signed up. And yet, Canada is nowhere to be found.

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