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May 17, 2011   |   Blog Post

What Does It mean To Be Transparent? A View from The Field


In his last blog, John noted VillageReach places a high value on transparency, and that has attracted a crowd of supporters who are challenging non-profit sector paradigms about transparency. This is a force for change to improve on donor-NGO relationships, and ultimately to create better impact. But what does it mean to be transparent? In international development, being transparent has impact on two distinct relationships: those between NGOs and donors, and those between NGOs and partners on the ground. Today I’m writing about the latter.

VillageReach’s work is often conducted in close partnership with governments. We’re not in the practice of creating or running health systems. Instead, our role is to strengthen what exists – typically the public health system. For example, in Mozambique we work with the provinces to implement a vaccine logistics system, and the work only starts when both partners are ready. For our own purposes, we must plan our work and forecast what needs we will have. Naturally, we base our plans on what we know about the provinces: eg. financial, personnel and transportation resources, and broader scheduling plans for various other health program initiatives.

But situations often change for government agencies and communities in low-income countries with limited resources. As a result we may publish plans that don’t coincide with the unique scheduling and resource planning priorities of the government.

When government representatives see our plans, they may naturally jump to the question, “whose health system is it anyway?” and wonder why VillageReach is making plans for them.

Planning is best done by talking with government partners about when they will be ready to work on a program. Their assumption will be that we have identified the resources before we begin discussions with them. Of course that is not always the case – we will want to present a case to donors that indicates prior government commitment. If our response to the provinces is that we haven’t [yet] identified the resources, then they may question our ability to make a long-term commitment.

In a similar vein, being transparent raises questions of data ownership. We strongly believe that it is critical to have data for monitoring and evaluating the impact of our work, and our donors and partners agree. The extent to which we share that data publicly is not always agreed upon with our partners. For example, when we carry out a baseline study with household surveys about vaccination coverage rates, that data and decisions about sharing it don’t belong to us – they rest with the government who factors in the various reporting obligations it has to other constituents, including other government and private donors. An important fact to consider in understanding government decision-making in low resource countries can be seen in what dependencies these governments have on external parties – as an example, as much as 70% of the public health budget may be supplied by donors.

We want to report on our program data, yet at the same time, the government needs to report on national indicators to other donors. The story the national data supports and the story for a province might be very different. The more NGOs, the more complicated this becomes for the government.

So balancing transparency for our donor partner needs and our government partner needs is a challenge. We’re committed to the principle of transparency – without it we might alienate donors, or at least limit their ability to make informed decisions about investing in our expertise and contributing to our programs. We’re similarly committed to being a trusted partner to governments we work with in order to ensure we’re valued and our expertise is applied at the greatest scale for maximum benefit.

Leah Hasselback

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