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Transparency and accountability in fragile states: why it matters and lessons from experience

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30

Martin Tisne
- Transparency and Accountability Initiative
Martin Walshe
- Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, DFID
aire Schouten - Associate Programme Director, Network for Integrity in Reconstruction, TIRI
Dr Heather Marquette
-International Development Department, University of Birmingham

James Deane
- Head of Policy, BBC World Service Trust

James Deane, Chair of the BBC World Trust, opened the discussion with a brief background into the challenges of transparency and accountability in fragile states.

The first speaker, Martin Tisne, outlined two points to frame the discussion:

1.      We know very little about the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives on development progress; and

2.      More specifically, it is unclear whether transparency increases state legitimacy and the social contract between citizens and the state.

On the first point, Martin highlighted that a substantial number of transparency and accountability initiatives have been developed over the past two decades, with progressively greater frequency. While we have some idea of the impacts of these initiatives, we have little understanding of ‘why’ and ‘how’ and work. This begs the question of how, precisely, greater transparency of information leads to improved accountability. Much of the academic literature and policy evaluations refer to the same initiatives in a rather repetitive manner, indicating a need for fresh analysis. Donors and development practitioners therefore rely on many untested assumptions regarding transparency, accountability and anti-corruption. This underscores the importance of clarifying the objectives of transparency and accountability interventions. For instance, in regard to social audits, is the main objective to improve impacts at the local level, or to have a wider impact on policy processes?

In regard to the second point, Martin highlighted that whether or not transparency and accountability initiatives increase legitimacy is of crucial importance. What are development donors doing to test whether this is the case? It seems, to date, very little. There is therefore a need to think more clearly and strategically on this point, considering impacts in specific regions and services.

Martin Walshe from DFID then set out the evolution of the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) and its relevance to improving the impacts of infrastructure projects and procurement systems. CoST aims to improve transparency and effectiveness of publically funded procurement with a particular focus on the Construction Sector, supporting the public disclosure of project information with the aim of reducing mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption and improving value for money. The Initiative has been active in eight pilot countries, with promising results.

Infrastructure has a huge impact on growth and poverty reduction, and mismanagement and corruption severely undermines the effectiveness of infrastructure projects. For example, it is estimated that mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption accounts for 10 to 30 per cent of a construction project's total value. CoST seeks to limit such losses by analysing the full project cycle from procurement to implementation, identifying weaknesses and entry points for reform.

In Afghanistan, CoST has implemented a range of projects aimed at increasing agricultural productivity in Helmand province. A significant proportion of these projects involve rehabilitating infrastructure. It is common practice for donors to contract projects out to a small number of firms who claim to have the requisite skills and capacity. However, these projects are frequently then sub-contracted by the initial contractors to the lowest cost bidder (with the initial contractors profiting the difference). No effective mechanisms are in place to account for how the money is spent. This system results in poor quality infrastructure, which undermines local support for the development process more broadly. In order to address this, CoST is helping to build capacity within local government in order to be able to address the sub-contracting challenges and hold contractors to account.

In Ethiopia, CoST has identified that 90% of poor performance and waste was down to weak management and a lack of capacity with just 10% due to corruption. This situation is caused by the significant overburdening of many junior engineers, tasked with overseeing numerous infrastructure projects, which are beyond their capacity. $50 million was wasted on one infrastructure project alone due to such poor management.

CoST is now looking to expand to other countries with the potential backing of the World Bank, G20 and Multilateral Development Banks.

Claire Schouten from TIRI provided an examination of work being done as part of the Network for Integrity in Reconstruction. The Network for Integrity in Reconstruction is comprised of a number of civil society organisations that work with researchers to identify the dynamics of corruption and accountability in local contexts.

Many immediately post-conflict states are characterised by high levels of aid, low absorptive capacity and low public demand for accountability. As a result, corruption risks in these environments are usually high. Further into post-conflict life, when public perceptions of corruption are high and there are high internal and external demands for accountability, corruption is often already entrenched and thus more difficult to address. Conventional anti-corruption initiatives have generally not been successful in these contexts. There tends to be a mistaken focus on upwards accountability to donors while ignoring downwards accountability to citizens.

A focus on integrity, rather than anti-corruption is more likely to have greater impact under these circumstances. Integrity is much easier for domestic actors to buy into as it advocates a widely perceived good. It is broader than just financial accountability and therefore addresses some of the gaps in earlier anti-corruption initiatives. It reinforces national capacities and resources, drawing upon contextualised knowledge and competencies. It focuses more sustainably on local accountability mechanisms, community engagement and access to information. The ‘softer’, more appealing notion of integrity also avoids the destabilising effects of accusations of corrupt behavior.

Instead of a top-down, punitive approach to reform, therefore, TIRI works collaboratively with governments and local communities to identify reform priorities, and help local actors gain greater access to information. In Afghanistan, this has involved working with local leaders and councils (such as Shuras), enabling them to gain access to relevant information on projects in their area and identify entry points for reform. It was found that 50% of the projects involved improved with community monitoring. As a result, government allocations have responded accordingly to address identified weaknesses.

Heather Marquette from the University of Birmingham acted as discussant for the event. She noted the need to be realistic in regard to transparency and accountability reforms in post-conflict states. It is the absence of institutions and sufficient accountability itself that makes these states fragile in the first place. Therefore, expectations of good practice within short time frames are unlikely to be met.

The integrity approach, advocated by CoST and the Network for Integrity in Reconstruction, admirably attempts to address the challenges of transparency and accountability at every level, rather than narrowly focusing on corruption.

The recent World Bank World Development Report rightly states that direct approaches to tackling corruption may be the last thing a post-conflict state needs. Instead an indirect approach of capacity building is more suitable and will be more effective in the long run. Although fragile states are unique contexts, the integrity approach seems sufficiently adaptable that it can be applied across all states aiming to improve transparency, accountability and effective governance.

Audience discussion centred around three key issues:

Participants felt that there was a need for greater clarity of the terms being used (integrity, accountability, legitimacy and transparency). Too often the terms are used without sufficient thought as to what they embody and how they are importantly related and differentiated. Similarly, the ‘theories of change’ implicit within the integrity approaches were questioned and highlighted as needing greater clarity of purpose.

Some participants advocated the continued use of anti-corruption initiatives, alongside the new integrity approaches, arguing that the two are not mutually exclusive. This would be particularly important in relation to prosecutions and enforcement mechanisms.

The challenge of attitudinal change was also pinpointed as being critical for sustainably addressing a lack of transparency and accountability. In particular, CoST noted a low domestic demand for transparency in regard to information on infrastructure projects. As a result, it has been recognized that future work will need to consider how to build demand for greater citizen-state accountability.

The event provided interesting and rounded discussion on the challenges of addressing a lack of transparency and accountability in fragile states. The new integrity-based approaches offer innovative strategies for addressing these challenges that move away from the more normative prescriptions of anti-corruption programmes and towards more promising strategies for improved development and governance in fragile states.


The impact of corruption and lack of transparency on development progress, particularly in fragile states, is widely recognised, and it has generated an array of international transparency and accountability initiatives. Drawing on evidence emerging from multi-country and cross-sectoral research, this event will explore how a new generation of transparency initiatives, including the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) and the Network for Integrity in Reconstruction, has sought to address corruption in fragile states, draw lessons on what has and has not worked and why, and highlight some of the challenges that remain ahead.