Transparency and the role of the Guardian
9 June, 2010
The Katine Community Partnerships Project (KCPP) is exceptional in its degree of public transparency. The progress of the project, and the lives of people in Katine sub-county, have been extensively documented on the Guardian newspaper’s Katine website since October 2007 when the project started. Much of this has been generated by capable Ugandan journalists resident in Katine, another unusual feature of the project. Intensive coverage is likely to continue on till 2011, if not later. This commitment to transparency was the main reason I became involved in the project, via the Guardian. I had a strong belief in the importance of public transparency as a means of making aid processes more accountable, and in the process, more effective.
AMREF knew the project would receive continuous public exposure when they agreed to the funding support provided by the Guardian and Barclays. They knew they would have much less control over what was said in public than they would normally have, when publicising their own work through the media. It was a courageous decision, and it would be for almost any NGO.
In reality achieving substantial and continuous transparency has not been easy, for either AMREF or its two donors (Guardian and Barclays). The donors have been frustrated at time with the apparent unwillingness of AMREF management to let the project staff speak directly, rather than through layers of approval processes. AMREF has been frustrated by the need to manage what has appeared to be continuing stream of visitors, many more than would normally be accepted by most development projects. The contents of the website, and the public comments made on those comments, have also been a source of friction between donor and grantee. Complicating this picture is the fact that the Guardian in particular does not normally find itself in the role of a donor, with interest at stake in a project they are also trying to report on independently and objectively.
This background has relevance for plans that have and may still be made for the evaluation of the Katine project. I made two visits to the project in 2008 to monitor the early progress of the project, for the Guardian and Barclays. I also provided back up support to a consultant contracted by AMREF to carry out a mid-term review of the project in mid-2009. As stated elsewhere in this blog, my hope was that as the project developed over time, the Guardian would be able to make more use of AMREF’s own evaluations, and rely less on external parties such as myself, contracted by its donors. In retrospect, I think that was an ambitious expectation that has not proved appropriate to the circumstances. There has not been enough trust between donor and grantee for this to happen, and I now doubt the capacity of AMREF to provide an appropriately thorough and rigorous review of the KCPP’s progress.
I have one other concern which I think needs discussion. In the two visits I made, and the mid-term review, the focus was understandably on the project and not on the Katine website. It was however agreed that the impact of visitors (journalists and others) on the project should fall within the ambit of these reviews. With the project now in its third year it is now time to focus on the most innovatory aspect of the whole experience: the Katine website. This is especially important with a project like the KCPP which unfortunately was not a well designed project to begin with. With a project like this, which are all too common, what difference has the Guardian website made? This is a very important question, with potentially wider ramifications for how other international aid projects are managed. There is already some evidence of impact on the project on the website itself, in the various dialogues between the Guardian, AMREF and others. These have related issues like the management of school building construction, drug supplies for the health centres, the scale of investments in livelihoods development and in training activities. My impression is that the Guardian has become a much more engaged/interventionist donor than AMREF has usually had to deal with. And perhaps more than the Guardian itself anticipated. In the aid world being an interventionist donor is not fashionable, but based on my experience it could easily be counter-argued that in fact donors are often too laissez-faire. This view of the Guardian as interventionist prompts a related question: what kinds of impacts (good/bad, anticipated/unanticipated) has the Katine website had? The potential for good and bad is clearly there, especially when you read some of the more venomous comments posted on the website by some readers.
All this involves a significant change of focus, away from AMREF as the responsible agent, to the Guardian as an active party to the development process that also needs to be held accountable, and hopefully, generating some lessons from experience that others can use. Doing so may not be easy. In 2008 I tried unsuccessfully to solicit from the Guardian what their expectations were about their role in the project, with the hope that this would provide some basis for evaluation at some stage. It is worth noting that nowhere, as far as I can see, have the Guardian put their objectives “on the table” on the website for others to see and hold them to account. As an external evaluator perhaps I should have pushed harder to get them to do this early on.
In fact the website is surprisingly non-transparent in dramatic contrast to the exposure given to the KCPP project, and the wider Katine community. Readers posting comments are not required to give their real identity, and the most don’t. It is hard not to think that were verifiable names required the level of discourse would be a good deal more civil and constructive. But according to my inquiries some time ago, the website has to comply with the Guardian wide policy, which is to allow anonymous comments. Others in the media world think it is time for this approach to change (See “Time to clear way the web’s veil of anonymity” in the FT). An evaluation with a focus on the Katine website could make a useful contribution to this debate.
Another non-transparent aspect of the Katine website is the statistics on the performance of the website. These are the equivalent to the detailed performance metrics that donors usually expect from their NGO grantees. Unlike many development projects dealing with social development, useful performance measures for website are relatively easy to identify and to access. These days’ detailed statistics on the performance of almost any website can be accessed via use of services like Google Analytics. However, with the Guardian I have not even been successful in obtaining information about this information .i.e. what kinds of website statistics they have (let alone the statistics themselves). Such information would be directly relevant to an evaluation of the impact of the website. Both in crude terms of identifying what content was read and commented on more versus less, but also where to focus the attention of the evaluation via more detailed inquiries.
There is also another less immediately pragmatic reason. At present there is a pronounced double standard when it comes to expectations about transparency: Good for AMREF, but not necessary for the Guardian. But the golden rule would seem applicable here, as it is often elsewhere: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. With this appeal to principle as well as practicality, I ask the Guardian to focus on what is truly innovatory about the KCPP experience and encourage an external evaluation of the Katine website before the project comes to an end and before the website is archived.
PS1: After the Guardian read this post in draft form they provided the following extra information (paraphrased)
- There will be an “academic review” of the project by Ben Jones (who has previously posted (23) articles on the Katine website), who will visit Katine in September. His work will feed into a public conference to be held in November which will look at the impact of the Guardian and the website on the development process. One of the key questions will be around how honest can one be in the communication of development.
- [RD] This looks like a very positive development
- Re web statistics: According to the Guardian, “it is not straightforward or easy to get figures for specific articles . Media outlets don’t publish their statistics until they are officially audited each month – for the whole site, not for individual sections or articles”
- [RD] I should emphasise that I was asking the Guardian for information about information i.e. what kinds of web statistics they had access to and used, when managing the Katine website. I was not asking for the statistics themselves. Though these would be useful to any evaluator of the website.
- [RD] My impression from the response so far is that there is not much use at all of web statistics in the planning and management of the website, which is surprising. I am open to being corrected.
PS2: Since I drafted this post the new Minister responsible for DFID has issued a public statement on how the new government proposes to increases the transparency of aid programmes funded by DFID. See “Full transparency and new independent watchdog will give UK taxpayers value for money in aid”