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What’s missing from the new TAI strategy?

Nathaniel Heller   |   May 9, 2017   |   Comments

A few weeks back, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) published a new strategy to guide its work over the coming years. For the less familiar, TAI remains the most important donor collaborative within the transparency, accountability and participation (TAP) space, comprising the Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation and Ford Foundation. Together, they represent some of the most active donors in the TAP community and have been core funders of key global TAP organizations, including Transparency International, the International Budget Partnership, the Natural Resource Governance Institute, the Open Contracting Partnership, and initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative. What TAI thinks and does is important for many of us working in the TAP community.

The new TAI strategy is chock full of smart, common sense ideas for how to advance their respective work as donors — not least of which is a strategic pivot toward TAI serving as more of a traditional donor-facing collaborative focused on achieving economies of scale and coordination rather than as a quasi-operating non-governmental organization. The 40-plus page strategy is well worth a read.

Beyond what’s contained in the new strategy, there’s equally useful insight to be gleaned from what’s not addressed in the strategy. Below are some of the issues that struck me as surprisingly absent from the new strategy, and which would be useful for TAI members to tackle more explicitly in the coming months and years.

1. The SDGs

Do a search in the strategy document for “Sustainable Development Goals” and you’ll come up empty. There’s a single reference at the top to TAI members’ past work in pushing for SDG16 on peace, justice and security, but that’s literally it in terms of a nod to the SDGs. It strikes me as odd that a key donor collaborative strategy is silent on the global development community’s overarching framework. While I don’t think that TAI needs to invest massively in pushing for country implementation of Goal 16 targets, for example, it does seem like a missed opportunity to better mainstream principles of transparency, accountability and participation to the broader SDG framework. Like it or not, the SDGs are here to stay. A stronger, more explicit commitment by TAI donors in their strategy to the SDGs would have sent more positive signals to key partners (for example, UNDP) about the potential to collaborate with TAI and the TAP community on SDG implementation.

2. Whether transparency donors should be transparent

I’ve said this directly to TAI donors and staff before and I’ll say it again publicly: I struggle to understand why the TAI donors don’t all make their internal programmatic and funding strategies public. This would not only be intellectually consistent with their actual funding, but would help to reduce the friction and inefficiencies associated with the typical grant-seeking cycle of tortured exploratory conversations and relationship building. Tell us what you actually want to fund, TAI donors, and we’ll stop harassing you for conversations about things you don’t want to fund!

An important exception to this rule is the Hewlett Foundation, which goes to great lengths to develop and publish sophisticated and well-thought out funding strategies, share those with the TAP community, and solicit feedback on a regular basis (there’s an “open mic” grantee call with Hewlett staff next month, for example). Huge kudos to them. And Omidyar Network does a decent job making their grant decisions and rationale public through regular blogging. But the strategies at Ford and OSF remain a mystery to most of us.

Colleagues close to TAI suggest that various individual donor strategy revamps are in the works, and that we should expect to see progress on this front in the medium-term; that is good. Including those respective donor strategies as annexes to the TAI strategy would be a boon to improved donor-grantee coordination and efficiency.

3. Organizational and grantee health

I was also struck by the absence of references to the importance of organizational and grantee health in the TAI strategy. Key TAI donors, such as Omidyar Network and Hewlett, have historically placed great importance on quality of leadership, depth of the management “bench,” and strategic communications abilities of their partners. So while the TAI strategy is smart on the substance of what the donors are hoping to support their grantees achieve, it’s largely silent on the human capital required to make that change happen. This is a potential strategic mistake, as human capital deficiencies are rife within the TAP community.

4. Importance of new funders

A final missing element from the TAI strategy is an explicit focus on recruiting new donors to TAI, and the TAP space more generally. As the strategy correctly points out, funding for “traditional” TAP work is, relatively speaking, quite small. Other sectors within the international development and human rights communities are far larger and benefit from far more financial resources at their disposal. Ours remains a “niche” area shaped significantly by the existing four TAI donors, with some key bilateral aid agencies (DFID, USAID, and Swedish SIDA) having parallel long-running interests and investments in the TAP agenda.

Achieving the four priorities laid out in the TAI strategy — Data Use for Accountability, Taxation and Tax Governance, Strengthening of Civic Space, and Learning for Improved Grant Making — will only be possible with additional funding. The existing pool of investments is simply too small (though it’s a bit challenging to confirm this quantitatively given the opacity associated with some of the TAI donors’ grant making, as mentioned above!). There is significant new capital waiting on the sidelines that we could potentially recruit, if we can demonstrate that transparency, participation and accountability matter for the outcomes those would-be donors care most about.

An example of this potential comes from TAI’s own history. Nearly five years ago, TAI brokered one of the largest grants to-date focused on exploring the impact of TAP interventions on maternal and newborn health outcomes, the Transparency for Development project, which R4D co-leads with Harvard University. That nearly $10 million investment was co-financed by two TAI donors (Hewlett and DFID, then a full member of TAI), but also included financing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. T4D remains an extremely important initiative in its own right, but tactically it also served to “prove” to a potential new TAP funder such as Gates that the TAP community could help deliver on issues that mattered to an adjacent donor community (in this case, the global health community). If the forthcoming results from the T4D randomized control trial and ethnography do indeed show that TAP interventions have a positive and attributable impact on concrete health outcomes, we might see a donor such as Gates double down on their investments in the TAP space.

It would have been nice to see TAI think more strategically about how to recruit in additional donors to the space a la T4D-style experimental co-investments. Colleagues close to TAI suggest this is indeed happening behind the scenes, which is encouraging.

As the cliché goes, strategy documents remain important right up until the ink dries. It’s important not to overanalyze the TAI strategy to death. That said, some additional emphasis on key missing issues in the months and years to come will benefit all of us, both donors and TAP practitioners.

Photo © Results for Development

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