Guest Post: Pro-Transparency Organizations Fail To Practice What They Preach

Till Bruckner, freelance journalist and Advocacy Manager for Transparify (an initiative that rates the financial transparency of think tanks and advocacy groups), contributes the following guest post in a private capacity:

“Transparency” is the watchword of the international anticorruption movement, a fact perhaps best illustrated by Transparency International’s choice of name. And partly due to the efforts of TI and many other groups, the world has changed for the better: transparency has become the new norm. Yet many of the anticorruption groups themselves need to wake up to this reality, and become more transparent themselves. Indeed, those of us in the anticorruption community would do a lot better if we started to walk our transparency talk.

This fact was driven home to me in a recent exchange I had with Professor Peter Eigen, the living legend who helped found Transparency International, about his newest venture, the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI). FiTI aims to curb corruption in international fisheries, and if it works as planned, it could have a positive impact on many issues, including overfishing, food security, and public revenue in developing countries. Somewhat unconventionally, FiTI is financed by the government of Mauritania, whose controversial president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, first announced the initiative. (see my recent article in Foreign Policy for more background.) I asked Professor Eigen about Mauritania’s financial support for the FiTI; he explained that Mauritania was only sponsoring the initial conceptual phase of FiTI, and he persuasively argued that its government would have no undue influence, let alone control, over outcomes. I then asked Professor Eigen how much Mauritania was paying his organization (the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform) in connection with its work on the FiTI project, but he told me he didn’t want to disclose the figure. He explained:

“This is a normal consulting arrangement of our not-for-profit organization with the [Mauritanian] government. We do not feel it would be proper for us to disclose details of contracts. If media or taxpayers want to find out how [the] Government spends its budget, they can ask the Government. This is for FiTI an unimportant side issue.”

Professor Eigen added two more points. First, his organization would at some later point account for the money on its website. Second, he himself would be working “pro bono.”

Summary: There’s no influence peddling; the use of taxpayer funds is a domestic issue; all money will be accounted for; and nobody is lining their pockets. So, everything is okay, right?

No, it’s not okay at all. Here’s why:

  • First, Professor Eigen’s main explanation as to why his organization need not disclose the amount of money it has received from the Mauritanian government is directly contrary to FiTI’s own basic principles. FiTI (like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative on which it based) works on the principle of double reporting: fishing companies disclose what they pay to the government, and the government discloses what it receives from fishing companies. FiTI then compares the numbers and checks whether they add up. If the founder of FiTI really believes that “[i]f media or taxpayers want to find out how [the] Government spends its budget, they can ask the Government,” why should fishing companies publish what they pay? After all, it’s not their job: if citizens want to find out how the government fills its coffers, they can just ask the government. (By the way, Mauritania, like almost all African countries, lacks a freedom of information law.) If instead Professor Eigen’s organization, and the other partners in the FiTI, were to embrace transparency by fully and publicly disclosing how much they are receiving from various sources, it would set a good example, especially within Mauritania–not only demonstrating how FiTI itself would work, but how similar transparency measures might be applied to other government projects.
  • Second, the idea that NGOs need not be fully transparent regarding their external funding undermines the integrity and credibility of the FiTI process. A cornerstone principle of FiTI is that it will be run by a multi-stakeholder committee composed of representatives from governments, fishing companies, and NGOs. If it’s okay for Professor Eigen’s own NGO not to publish who pays it, in what amounts and for what purposes, the same principle would presumably also apply to all other NGOs. And FiTI’s steering committees, both internationally and inside Mauritania and other partner countries, will probably be stacked with NGOs. If these are all financially opaque themselves, the whole transparency initiative will lack credibility. What’s to stop giant fishing companies from secretly lavishing funds on NGOs to co-opt them? How can local fishermen trust NGOs to represent their interests if the representatives of those organizations refuse to disclose who pays their salaries? As Naomi Klein’s latest book persuasively documented, NGOs receiving corporate funding can go badly off track. Having all funding out in the open can provide a useful corrective. This issue is all the more important because FiTI will also be engaging in advocacy work to change national and global policies—lobbying, in the best sense of the word. People worldwide are currently waking up to the huge role of non-profit organizations – whether think tanks, advocacy groups, or Super PACs – in shaping politics and policy. Also, powerful moneyed interests are increasingly choosing to lobby indirectly by secretly funding proxy organizations that then masquerade as bona fide civil society representatives. As influential players in the democratic arena, organizations like FiTI have a responsibility to be transparent about where they get their money from – and an opportunity to show that they are genuine and have nothing to hide.

Peter Eigen’s anticorruption advocacy work has indirectly saved thousands of lives over the course of his career, and FiTI is a promising initiative working on a very important issue. My criticism is not directed at one person or organization, because the problem is much more general. Transparify, an initiative I work for, recently assessed 34 pro-transparency organizations and discovered that only 12 of them – barely a third – were transparent about their own funding. Even Transparency International itself has a long way to go: while its international secretariat and many national chapters are highly transparent, some of its national chapters remain financially opaque. This not only weakens their credibility, it also leaves them very vulnerable to attacks from hostile governments and other ill-wishers who can – and sometimes do – accuse them of being the agents of hidden domestic or foreign interests.

To push back against the growing crackdown against good governance groups worldwide, we urgently need to develop global best practice guidelines on how to strike the difficult balance between protecting non-profits from undue restrictions and state interference on the one hand, and preventing moneyed domestic and foreign interests from excessively distorting and manipulating democratic debates on the other. Anticorruption groups should lead this debate, not follow it, but before they can credibly do that, they need to clean up their own act.

The good news is that a growing number of transparency advocates do already practice what they preach, including the Sunlight Foundation, Natural Resources Governance Institute, Global Integrity, Publish What You Pay, and World Resources Institute. Donors are also starting to get on board; two donors have recently begun to nudge their grantees towards greater transparency. I hope that FiTI, the Transparency International network as a whole, and all the other good organizations fighting corruption out there will join their ranks soon and model the changes they want to see.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Pro-Transparency Organizations Fail To Practice What They Preach

    • Hmmm…. I’ve got my own criticisms of many TI projects, but I don’t think that characterization is really fair. As Till’s post notes, the problem he discusses is hardly limited to TI (and indeed his main example in the post is not TI, but rather the FiTI). And in fact, as the post also notes, (1) there’s a lot of diversity across TI chapters with respect to their transparency, and (2) TI, despite its prominence, does not in fact have a monopoly on this space, and there are lots of other organizations out there (some of which do better than TI on transparency, some of which do worse). More generally, in this context (non-profit advocacy), it’s not so clear to me how the “monopoly” metaphor should be expected to impact organizational transparency.

      • I fully agree with Matthew. TI used to have a monopoly but due to it’s success, everyone is “doing” transparency and anti-corruption now.

        Also, the TI Secretariat itself looks 5-star transparent to me. Globally, TI as a network is far from monolithic, the disclosure level of national chapters varies widely. You got some chapters in EU countries that are highly opaque, and some chapters that work in far more difficult contexts that are highly transparent.

  1. Very interesting post, Till. I have some concerns that requiring entities that fund transparency groups to be public—in name and/or amount— may actually hinder the effort to bring about greater transparency and reduce corruption.

    The situation I have in mind looks something like this: A transparency group wants to combat corruption, halting a practice or practices that happen(s) to cause a specific economic harm to a potential funder—whether an individual, a corporation, or a government. Here, the transparency group and the donor have aligned interests, although they have different specific reasons for wanting to put a stop to the practice(s). If the transparency group needs funding to start and continue its effort, it may not have another source of funding aside from the entity with an aligned economic interest. In that case, the transparency group may not be able to combat the corruption at all without agreeing to keep the funding anonymous. I am of the mind that it would be better to launch an effort to combat the corruption than to have a bright-line rule about revealing funding sources.

    Of course, the potential funder with an economic interest has an incentive to fight the corruption on its own, so maybe this type of situation will not arise in practice. Perhaps a more general principle I am driving at is whether it is worth potentially alienating parties with aligned goals, but different motivations. I am not sure how often this occurs, but particularly in areas where the transparency movement is in its early stages, my instinct is that it is not wise to close the door to any potentially useful alliance, while keeping in mind the need to be wary about secret funding of what are truly “sham” civil society organizations, as you discussed.

    I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Nathan,

      first off, I think we we need to distinguish between two questions:

      Q1: Should full financial disclosure be the norm or the “default setting” among transparency groups? I think nearly everyone will agree that the answer to that is a resounding YES.

      Q2: Are there certain exceptional circumstances under which transparency groups can legitimately depart from this norm and keep their funders secret? This debate remains wide open and the answer for now is MAYBE.

      In my view, those advocating for exceptions to the general rule of disclosure need to define very clearly under what exact circumstances non-disclosure is justified. The main challenge here is to come up with common ground rules across sectors – transparency NGOs cannot credibly claim that everyone else should always be transparent, but that they alone should enjoy some special opt-outs clauses as a kind of divine privilege.

      Another challenge is to avoid glib fig leafs. For example, years ago I challenged development INGOs in Georgia to publish their project budgets and many declined citing widespread security concerns in their sector. True on a global level – but in the case of Georgia at the time, there were no security concerns, it was just a lame excuse. So the onus should always be on the opaque to explain why in this specific case, the disclosure norm should not apply.

      Regarding your specific example, that of a commercial player or an industry group funding anti-corruption work that directly affects their business, I think you are potentially walking a very, very thin line between anti-corruption work and lobbying in this case. For example, theoretically a telecoms company seeking to enter a new market might fund a TI chapter to do some studies on past deals in the sector, review legislation and propose reforms to create a level playing field with clear and clean rules.

      In my view, a TI chapter could legitimately accept such funding if it established clear ground rules and integrity safeguards with the donor, and then disclosed the funding source so the relationship was out in the open. However, a scenario in which a TI chapter digs out past dirt on Vodafone and Verizon deals and calls for regulatory reforms that would benefit Orange would look like clandestine lobbying if it later came out (as it tends to) that Orange had paid for all this barking and biting. Even if it was all legit and high quality anti-corruption work, and appropriate internal integrity safeguards had been in place, it would be a reputational disaster because to many minds – notably journalists – any secret money deals are inherently suspicious.

      Equally, if an anti-corruption group in Pakistan advocates for greater transparency in the national defense sector, personally I’d like to know whether the funder is a Pakistani businessman, the Ford Foundation – or the government of India.

      Others might disgree, and Transparify itself does not have an official position beyond “transparency should be the default”. Have a look at the older blogs on the Transparify website for some eloquent pros and cons regarding non-profit transparency.
      http://www.transparify.org

      Personally, I think the key to moving forwards is to start a debate between the anti-corruption folk specializing in lobbying transparency and the anti-corruption folk tasked with running an NGO. After all, we’ve all got the same big overarching goals.

      In this spirit, I’m hoping for more interesting comments :))

  2. Exceptions, while theoretically sensible have a tendency of becoming the norm. When organizations who themselves advocate transparency adopt secrecy for whatever reasons, they become sitting ducks for its detractors who will cry hoarse of double standards. Further, the journey down the path of limited secrecy for good reasons mostly ends up as a slippery slope. Volkswagen probably had no plans to commit corporate fraud of the scale that we are witnessing now when it initially started tinkering with the emission software. After a time, the success probably became too heady to back off as one digression got piled on the other. I am not sure if transparency organizations, of all, can afford a journey down that path

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