Friday, March 21, 2008

Aid organisations as self-interested businesses?

This posting has been prompted by a letter I received recently. A client I am working with (evaluating their project and that of another donor) wanted me to sign a confidentiality agreement. While it did not seem excessively restrictive, in terms of general intent it was the very opposite of what I have been trying to encourage this and other donors to do with information about their projects. Increasingly over the past few years I have been pushing for more transparency, not less. The rationale being that the whole aid process would benefit by being more accountable to the public at large, not just to donors or the project manager’s immediate partners and intended beneficiaries. Some of my clients have taken this approach seriously and used their websites to make a whole range of project documents publicly available (See G-rap and PETRRA). Others have agreed in principle but seem to have made little progress in practice.

Parallel to this effort I have been trying to persuade donors and project managers that achieving specific development objectives is not enough For example, increased levels of health service usage, or increased farmers’ incomes. It is also essential that knowledge be accumulated, and made available, about how these objectives were achieved, and what factors made the difference between higher and lower levels of achievement. Without this knowledge the existing achievements are less likely to be sustainable, and they are certainly unlikely to be replicable. Given the scale of most development problems, sustainability and replicability of achievements is absolutely essential. Measuring sustainability and replicability is not easy. But identifying the availability of relevant knowledge should be possible.

If information was made publicly available on how specific developments were achieved then a project can be considered to have created a public good, that others can use. The more usable that knowledge is, the more value that public good is. Businesses do not often do this, though putting usable knowledge in the public domain is becoming more common in the world of software and internet services[1]. Businesses usually have a commercial self interest in keeping secret the key parts of their business processes that would enable others to compete with them in providing the same goods or services. The production of public goods could therefore be seen as a way of differentiating the degree to which aid organisations (of varying kinds) are operating as self-interested businesses versus more public interested organisations. Whether they make and distribute a profit could be considered a secondary matter.

If the production of public goods is accepted as an important defining feature of good aid organisations then more attention to the quality of those goods, and how it could be improved, would be justified. Some might argue that a lot of information products produced by aid organisations are often more like advertising and public relations materials, and better described as “vapourware”[2]. One means of improving the quality of potential public goods would be increased transparency. So we can see not only the final information product (e.g. a book, web page, video, etc), but the drafts and the debate that surrounded their development, and the background data. Not simply as a final package, but during the process. The public could then become engaged, though comment and feedback, in the process of producing the public good(s). This type of semi-open production process is increasingly common in some areas of business (see "Democratizing Innovation", 2005 and Wikipedia entry). In aid organisations this approach could be realised in fairly simple forms through the use of websites to host draft documents, and the use of online open forums and email lists to promote awareness and discussion of those documents. This is not rocket science. But nor is it yet common practice on the scale it should be.

In my argument above transparency has two rationales. One is pragmatic, tranparency could help improve the knowledge that is available about how best to have an impact. On the other hand, when visibly put into practice, transparency may also function as an important signal of intentions, helping us differentiate organisations that are more public interested from those that are more self-interested.

[1] For example, in the form of open source products, free internet services and services that inter-operable with those provided by others.

[2] Software products that have a name, and promotional materials, but not much in the way of contents that will actually make them work and deliver what they promise