Within a year of going live in 2006, WikiLeaks’ servers hosted more than a million leaked documents. This indicates at least two important things: 1) a lot of people are willing to take a risk if it means exposing the truth, and 2) many decisions and actions that affect local and global society are not widely known, and this lack of transparency stifles accountability, learning, and decisions shared by a larger constituency base.
Global development is desperately in need of this same type of wake-up call.
Transparency has become a frequently discussed topic in the nonprofit sector—often from an ethical or compliance perspective. There is a lot of scrutiny of nonprofit organizations and how they spend money. In his widely watched TED Talk, AIDS Ride founder Dan Palotta described how sponsors of his organization, despite its success, pulled support when the organization fell under media criticism for its “excessive” recruitment and customer service spending. These days, entire websites exist to help individuals vet organizations and their spending before deciding whether to give.
But talk to most development practitioners after hours over a beer, and you’ll hear another side of the story. They’ll explain the pressures they face from powerful stakeholders, such as government and major donors, in making decisions. When things go well, others claim the credit. When they don’t, the nonprofit is clearly the culprit. Many feel a sense of powerlessness and frustration over this lack of transparency in assessing organizations, performance, and societal outcomes.
Does this matter? We think yes. Apart from the discussions about ethics and compliance, a lack of transparency can contribute to declines in motivation and mutual trust within and among organizations. Creating the Future’s Hildy Gottlieb recently argued for a more-instrumental perspective as well, asking “ ... could transparency actually be an organization’s path to accomplishing its mission?” Without transparency, we also risk losing important lessons. Consequences might include wasting money and effort on bad ideas and projects, and frustrating organizations in their efforts to learn and to share their learnings with others without censorship. Could this be a serious bottleneck for making progress?
There have been calls for more donor-transparency initiatives like the Publish What You Fund site for self-reporting, but unsurprisingly, most donors are failing to meet the transparency targets that they set for 2015. What’s more, financial reporting on its own doesn’t give the whole story. It doesn’t tell you about the project in Bangladesh that aims to ensure nutrition for new mothers living on farms, but has to ship food in from North America. Or that with just two weeks of funding left for an HIV project in Kenya, the project leader still didn’t know whether the funder would renew the grant. Practitioners secretly hint at donors accepting hugely exaggerated “expense claims” for various meetings or workshops that can hardly be justified by real expenses in particular countries. Clearly these types of donor behaviors have consequences on program impact and value for money. They are some of the systemic issues that the development sector needs to share, examine, and revise. But how?
A recent Scientific American article argues that technology and novel communication channels enable us to “ … see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before … ” Authors Daniel Dennet and Deb Roy note that organizations used to grow up in an “ ... epistemologically murky environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept and individuals were, if not blind, myopic.” Today, for the first time, knowledge transcends the local and individual. But the power of knowledge does not simply derive from more people knowing about organizational (mis)behavior. The authors believe that the real mechanism driving more transparency lies in the fact that people are aware of the fact that many others share their knowledge. This enables fast, often ad-hoc, coordination of communities that share certain values, and changes the selection environment for organizations: “When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.”
Recently, we were discussing these issues, and we mused: What if there were a WikiLeaks for the development sector? Would people share their stories and information? How could it be organized? How would we protect the identity of sources and prevent backlash? How could we verify claims and prevent false accusations? What are the dangers of sharing certain facts? And most importantly, would it enable the development sector to be better?
In case you are wondering: Yes, we’ve secured a domain—wikilids.org (wikilids = wikileaks for the development sector), just in case. Whether and how the global development sector could use it depends a lot on your thoughts and ideas, your enthusiasm and concerns. We look forward to hearing from you. (And Julian, if you read this, that includes you!)