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Response from Mercy Corps on Transparency

Editor’s note: Aid Watch received the following from Mercy Corps in response to a request for comment on Till Bruckner’s post The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test. We have reproduced the Mercy Corps response here in full:

Till Bruckner’s posts on NGO accountability raise interesting questions – and it is unfortunate that the discussion has devolved into insinuations about NGO motives rather than an open discussion of what constitutes meaningful accountability in aid work.  While Mercy Corps appreciates being referred to as among the “most transparent NGOs,” we would argue that the willingness to release project budget documents to a third party is not a good indicator of an NGO’s overall level of accountability to its beneficiaries and stakeholders.  By applying such a narrow focus, Bruckner unfortunately turns what could be a rich and textured discussion of aid methodology into a less germane question of responsiveness to a self-appointed watchdog.

The rest of the story on Georgia
First off, a bit more background on the Transparency International research project that Bruckner referenced in the original post.  In May 2009, Bruckner contacted Mercy Corps through our main website, informing us in vague terms that a report on NGO transparency would be forthcoming.  He requested a contact email where he could send the report for our review.  Our Georgia Country Director sent Bruckner an email three days later requesting that any inquiries be directed to him; Bruckner never followed up.  We heard nothing more until the following month, when we and the other agencies received an email from a different TI official, informing us that their project had developed a ranking of NGO transparency “based on the content provided on their websites”.  TI noted that it would “be extremely happy to improve the score of your organization and re-write the relevant sections of the report if you email us the complete proposals with budgets for all your ongoing projects as public documents (we will hide individual salary information before re-posting on our website).”  However, the agencies were given just three working days to review the report and turn any information over to TI-Georgia.

Mercy Corps and the other agencies contacted had serious concerns about TI’s approach.  We felt that the web-centric methodology of the study was flawed; that the format of the resulting report misrepresented how TI had engaged with our agencies (in fact, TI had not engaged us at all at that point); and felt, as agencies in the midst of a major ongoing post-conflict aid effort, that a three-day turnaround on the demand for proposal and budget data was inadequate.  The NGOs sent a letter of reply to TI expressing these concerns, and suggesting that TI take this opportunity to engage with us in a dialog on how to move forward with aid transparency in Georgia.  TI-Georgia eventually did come to meet with the NGOs and listen to our concerns.  As a result of that meeting TI agreed to redo the survey at a later date; however there was no further contact from TI after that meeting.  Bruckner’s posts make no reference to the NGOs’ substantive concerns, nor to the subsequent dialog with TI over these issues.  Here are the original emails, as well as the NGOs’ letter of response to TI, so that readers can draw their own conclusions about whether the issue has been presented fairly.

That process aside, there are important questions at stake here of how, and to whom, aid agencies should be accountable:

Does budget-sharing constitute accountability?
Raw budget data, and the willingness to share it, is a poor proxy for real, comprehensive aid accountability – especially when divorced from the context of the project itself.  NGOs have different cost structures and different methodologies, and budget documents reveal little about which are most effective.  Certain types of projects – such as technical assistance or gender-based violence prevention – tend by their nature to be heavy on labor costs and light on capital items, while food distribution or micro-lending tend to be lighter on labor costs and heavier on capital requirements.  Posting the raw budgets of a handful of agencies reveals little about whether those agencies are effective, whether they are accountable to their beneficiaries, or whether their cost structures are reasonable. Furthermore, there can be legitimate reasons for withholding budget data.  To take one example, even Transparency International’s own handbook on Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations acknowledges that “the highly volatile environments in which aid is often delivered means it’s important to recognise that public information about the value of programme resources and their transport may sometimes jeopardise staff and beneficiary security, particularly in conflict contexts.”

How does accountability make aid more effective?
The ultimate purpose of accountability and transparency is to provide more effective aid.  As the SPHERE manual’s guidance note on Communication and Transparency states: “the sharing of information and knowledge among all those involved is fundamental to achieving a better understanding of the problem and to providing coordinated assistance.”  This is best achieved when the beneficiary population is involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring of that activity.  This integration of stakeholders into core parts of the project management process ensures that divergence between community needs and NGO deliverables is kept to a minimum.

What constitutes accountability to our constituents?
NGO accountability focuses on our beneficiaries, our donors, and the governments of the countries where we work.  We orient our accountability systems to provide appropriate information, in appropriate formats, to these constituencies.  To prevent fraud and ensure good financial stewardship we institute rigorous financial and administrative policies (for an example, check out Mercy Corps’ Office-in-a-Box) and subject ourselves to extensive compliance requirements and a barrage of external audits.  Given the extensive burden that these requirements impose on already-stretched staff, it is often true that NGOs are less responsive to the demands of third-party watchdogs.  At a program level, NGO accountability means providing community stakeholders with means of evaluating a project’s goals, the appropriateness of its implementation strategy, and ultimately its effectiveness in meeting those goals.  Publicizing budget data may be a part of the approach depending on the context – but it is not a substitute for a project methodology that puts a core focus on community priorities and community participation.

Related posts:

The accidental NGO and USAID transparency test
Till Bruckner Responds to Critics on Meaningful Transparency
NGO Response: CNFA Reaffirms Commitment to Transparency
World Vision responds on transparency
USAID and NGO transparency: When in doubt, hide the data

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11 Comments

  1. anon wrote:

    he said, she said. bruckner had better respond to this.

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Scott Gilmore wrote:

    Wells said: “Raw budget data, and the willingness to share it, is a poor proxy for real, comprehensive aid accountability – especially when divorced from the context of the project itself. “

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Ryan wrote:

    Joseph Schumpeter once remarked that “the budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.” The same applies to other organizations. Transparency here is vital.

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  4. @Bill_Westerly wrote:

    Beardless boy-stooden Till must practice wid der wooden sword against der peon counting-scribes uff der merciful. Den he vill be retty fur der battles among der men uff der Vurld (bank).

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  5. Nicolas wrote:

    We’re accountable, just not to you? And how are we accountable: “We orient our accountability systems to provide appropriate information, in appropriate formats, to these constituencies. To prevent fraud and ensure good financial stewardship we institute rigorous financial and administrative policies (for an example, check out Mercy Corps’ Office-in-a-Box) and subject ourselves to extensive compliance requirements and a barrage of external audits.” My vague-onometer is going through the roof!

    It would be nice to get some concrete examples of how Mercy Corps (and other NGOs) actually safeguards transparency and accountability… Isn’t there a single NGO out there that can give a clear example as to whom they are accountable/transparent to and how exactly this accountability/transparency process works? Like, maybe, publish where you spend money and what it is spent on. I don’t think the Office in a Box is a great example. From the link: “The Office in a Box is designed to be used during emergencies, the start-up of new field offices and to strengthen operations management in existing field offices. It contains:
    1) tools and document templates crucial to operations management during emergency response, program startup, and long-term development programs.
    2) office set-up checklists, best practice guidelines and manuals for using the above tools as an auditable system.” How does this guarantee transparency and accountability?

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  6. didier wrote:

    Nicolas,

    Check out the 990 forms at the IRS for these NGOs. It is “aclear example” of how they are accountable to the US government and transparent about their financials at the same time. For Mercy Corps, for instance, it shows what it spent in the US and what it spent overseas and how that breaks down regionally. It also provides figures on salaries for top officers of the organization and the five highest paid consultants. It also has a section where government grants have to listed and how Mercy Corps monitors those grants. If you need programmatic details, then you have to go to their annual report and if you want to wade into the details of their operation, I imagine you would have to engage them directly. Accountability and Transparency happens even if bloggers are not spoon-fed particular details on what was spent in Georgia on Tuesday.

    Posted August 24, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  7. c-sez wrote:

    Anyone who’s interested in discussion around accountability models, and wants to get past the slanging match, might pop over to the ‘PM4NGOs’ group on linkedin. There’s an interesting thought bubble around constituting Project (governance) Boards including donor, beneficiary and CBO/partner representatives to provide oversight of the activities of an implementing (I)NGO.

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 4:02 am | Permalink
  8. Tom C wrote:

    Dr Alden Kurtz in his insightful Hand Relief International blog gives us several pointed explanations of the theory and practice of budgeting and transparency for NGOs. Viewed through the perspective of HRI the actions and rationalizations of the donor and recipients enumerated in the blogs above are easy to understand.

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  9. Roger wrote:

    “NGO accountability focuses on our beneficiaries, our donors, and the governments of the countries where we work.”
    As if these would be in a position to enforce accountability to the NGO which are in the driving seat in most developing countries! And as for the beneficiaries, how should they go about to demand their so ever generous and righteous saviour to be accountable!

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink
  10. Till Bruckner wrote:

    Just a quick clarification, as I will be offline for the rest of the week: I left Georgia (and my job at TI Georgia) in summer 2009, while the NGO transparency ranking process was still underway. Due to the handover, the communications process was certainly less than ideal, as Mercy Corps correctly points out.

    The second part of the Mercy Corps response deserves a less rushed and more in-depth reply at a later point. For now, just let me thank Mercy Corps for clarifying and sharing their understanding of accountability, and for taking part in this important debate in such a meaningful way.

    The marked differences between the reponses of CNFA, World Vision and Mercy Corps show that NGOs may have very different understandings about how their shared commitment to “accountability” in theory can and should translate into practice. I’m looking forward to learning the views of the remaining five NGOs in the days to come.

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  11. Curious wrote:

    Till, hope you love academia bc I don’t think any agency will be hiring you any time soon.

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink