Accountable to Accountants?

There has been quite a discussion of NGO accountability recently in the blogosphere kicked off by Till Bruckner’s guest post on Aid Watch about NGO budgets in Georgia. Aid Watch subsequently posted a series of replies from the NGOs involved, and Scott Gilmore jumped in with his two cents. Caveman Tom summarised the whole to and fro here and then subsequently added his analysis.

Update: Aid Info also put the case for budget transparency very succinctly here.

I kinda agree with both sides, but ultimately think Scott Gilmore is closer to the truth. Budgets (and actual expenditure) are pretty fundamental to evaluating any project. They indicate the allocation of resources and give a clue to value-for-money. I get frustrated any time I am presented with project information without the finances. It suggests people have something to hide. So notwithstanding the fact that it was USAID who appear to have redacted the project budgets, I sympathise with Till Bruckner.

That said, I get even more frustrated with donors who like to impose budgetary restrictions. Different projects need different approaches; most rules of thumb are pretty useless when evaluating budgets. I’ve heard donors say things like they weren’t happy because the recipient government spent all the money on per diems and cars. Except that we also spend most of our money on salaries, per diems and car journeys. What the donor really meant is that they were disappointed with the lack of impact that came from all that expenditure. This is Scott Gilmore’s point.

Apparently one of the bones of contention in the Georgia case was NGOs’ reluctance to divulge their jealously guarded overhead rate they have negotiated with USAID. This is one area where I boggle to understand what the real problem is. Who actually cares what the overhead rate was? What we ought to care about is the quality of the work done. We all instinctively understand this any time we hire a builder; paying a bit more ‘overhead’ (supervisor salary) might lead to much better results. Hiring the cheapest contractor is often not the best option. Conversely if an NGO is really good at what they do then I think it is appropriate to pay their staff a bit more – they deserve it!

In the private sector when someone buys a service from someone else they rarely ask the service provider to break down the exact costs; they just compare reports of the quality of service (perhaps including from their own experience) between different providers with the range of costs and make a decision. Service providers who do not offer value for money are quickly pushed out of the market.

The trouble is that in the development sector the customer is two completely different actors: the donor and the beneficiary. Donors find it very hard to evaluate projects they’ve funded, and for all the talk of putting beneficiaries at the heart of development aid, and getting them to make the decisions, in reality this happens very little. The result is plenty of BINGOs getting away with mediocre quality work. Assuming the entire structure of aid is not going to change very much in the near future donors need to put more effort into actually assessing impact.

Transparency over budgets and expenditure will assist in determining value for money but they are far from being the whole cigar.  Obsession with budgets and expenditure leads to the tyranny of the accountant. Till Bruckner and other jumped up accountability experts (see J’s excellent critique) should take note. Accountability is a lot more than just doing the accounting.

(In my next post I shall discuss to whom I think I am accountable …)


4 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the links and great analysis of the debate and transparency. Looking forward to your follow-up.

    Also, I love that you called me ‘Caveman Tom.’


  2. I also just threw you up as a post to link here from my blog: and I will add you to the Transparencygate debate on my blog and the Huff Po by tonight. I will let you know when I do so that you can make sure that I am fairly summarizing your thoughts. Thanks again. (sorry to double comment!)


  3. […] David Satterthwaite’s point on Aid’s lack of accountability to beneficiaries is a familiar refrain, e.g. see here. […]


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