07 July 2011

Moving from Transparency to Effectiveness

Ned Breslin of Water for People writes today why he supports transparency efforts and hopes that they can lead to the next step by increasing focus on the effectiveness of interventions.
I believe greater transparency makes coordination and strategic investments more possible, although hardly certain. I do not think we will get to the question of effectiveness – or impact – unless we move beyond showing where money goes to what it actually does over time. The “aid transparency” debate is not quite there in my mind.

Let’s take a simple example from the water sector. The explosion of web sites where communities are plotted on a map and where people are asked for contributions to solve a water problem in that specific village are becoming more common. You can easily get data on the community – number of users, location, type of technology needed, costs etc. Some have a small thermostat with the total costs required to help this community, with the indicator moving up with each contribution towards its full funding goal. One site I was just asked to review breaks the funding possibilities down cleverly – you can buy pipes, bags of cement, shovels for digging, and actual labor for construction (visualized by a hard hat). Some even include implementation information – what stage of the process is the project in and what is coming next.

This data is of course useful, and can to varying degrees show whether the US$10.00 you contribute actually goes to a particular village and a particular handpump. But it does not show effectiveness at all, despite claims to the contrary. These web pages simply show that money was collected, allocated and spent. And while that is a huge step and should be applauded, it does not answer the most important question of whether that handpump you bought is actually functioning over time.

In reality, these project pages actually obscure the problem in the sector – and undermine long-term efforts to understand effectiveness under the guise of transparency. These pages paint a picture of a project as simply hardware and capacity building. They suggest that the project is the work that goes into construction and once the project is done then the community’s problems are solved. Project over, no more funds needed.

And this highlights for me the missing link for me with all the aid transparency debate. It is invaluable – and probably an absolutely essential first step – to simply get donors to show where they are spending their money. That is where we are headed and that is a great first step. It could truly help solve messes like Niassa and lead to better coordination and resource allocation.

But let’s not stop there – let’s actually push to answer the effectiveness question as well, and insist that we not only track where the money goes, but also whether it truly transformed lives – and do all this transparently. This will require a different view on funding, and in the water sector, a stronger sense of what a project really is – not just hardware and pre-implementation work, but critically whether those investments, and the on-going post-construction support that is so critical to make water supply last, are financed as well. We need a new funding paradigm that gets philanthropists to realize that the completion of a project is Day One of the REAL project for communities. We need to visualize those investments as well, because they are just as important as the initial costs of a handpump. And we need to find ways to value, and finance, on-going monitoring.
I am a fan of RCTs because they push the effectiveness question that Breslin discusses. They are not the only tool to move things forward and Breslin highlights how part of this will require a shift in how projects are seen. To me, this is connected with how NGOs communicate what their programs are doing and how they are effective interventions.