26 April 2013

Buzz Kill: Putting Accountability and Transparency Into Action

By John Sauer, Water For People and Patrick Moriarty, IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre

A high word count on many websites, sustainability and transparency are aspirational buzz words thrown about by the international development community. Sadly this ease of use in sector buzz is not mirrored in practical application and they lack meaning to the people in communities where the manifestation of these words matter most.

For some governments, NGOs, and the private sector, however, nice buzz words are not enough. A growing set of tools and approaches now exist to anchor these words in reality.

The Millennium Water Alliance (MWA), for example, is now planning to use the Akvo FLOW monitoring tool with all of their partners in future work in Mexico and Central America. This is an exciting step and an important commitment from a significant coalition of NGOs.

IRC’s WASHCost has developed a set of tools to help governments and implementers track and benchmark the costs of providing services – not just for the initial construction, but for the whole service lifecycle. These are being used by a growing band of NGOs, donors, and governments to cost in the necessary ‘post-construction’ elements of providing services.

From another perspective, a model for tracking, monitoring, and including the voice of the disenfranchised is the women-led citizen journalist network, World Pulse. This is an excellent example of how to engage local communities in the process of reporting on issues that matter.

To ensure sustainability, international development organizations must build in (or join in) yearly reflection processes with partners including government, local NGOs, and the private sector. This process would allow organizations to review data and service delivery indicators to see how things are going and to determine where course corrections are needed. Water For People has developed this process with an accompanying tool called Re-imagine Reporting. This new tool looks to visualize and connect programmatic work to provable outcomes. At a different scale, the Government of Uganda’s annual sector report presenting the progress of the water and environment sectors honestly and unsparingly identifies stagnation in both coverage and sustainability in rural Uganda. The report also serves as the basis for an annual joint sector review that brings together all actors in rural water across the country.

Other tools that support and focus on customer feedback include Ushahidi’s platform, FrontlineSMS, and the sensor work being done by SWEETSense and mw4d. Of course tools are only as good as the way they are used. Principles to consider in ensuring that use is effective include:
  • Data and information must be used to learn and make changes to improve
  • Data doesn’t just come in or up; it also flows out and down
  • Transparency is not just about showing that money is spent as intended; it is also about producing outcomes and impact with those resources
  • To achieve impact at scale, tools must be in the hands of the end user (governments and community members).

Putting an end to buzz words in international development is long overdue. Thankfully today’s technological and interconnected environment leave no excuse not to program transparently and sustainably: we really can move from buzz to business!