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Despite improved transparency, aid money still funding surveillance programs

Today’s much-anticipated launch of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index, an industry standard for assessing transparency among major aid donors, shows that, despite progress, many aid agencies continue to maintain secrecy around what they are funding.

Further, for those agencies that achieved high rankings in the index, transparency alone does not prevent one of our larger concerns: aid which facilitates impermissible surveillance of communities and individuals in the developing world. Biometric databases, electronic voting registration systems, criminal databases and border surveillance initiatives are being backed by Western donors keen to see the adoption abroad of technologies that raise considerable controversy at home.

Looking at the two ends of the spectrum, the US Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent US government foreign aid agency, has taken first place in the rankings from the 2012 winner, while, China – a major funder of development projects – takes last place. Overall, the publishers of the index conclude that “most aid information is still not published in a timely, standardised way – which is essential for it to be useful.”

A rating of note was the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID), which achieved a “very good” rating. Although DfID and other agencies have scored highly in the index, a good rating does not convey the full picture. Close analysis of aid flows reveals the troubling trend of Western donors funding state surveillance and increasing intrusions into the privacy of people in the developing world, including those living under repressive regimes. As the Telegraph recently highlighted, EuropeAid, including contributions from DfID, has gone towards supporting the security forces of Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, under the auspices of enhancing border security.

In the context of the ongoing revolution in data analysis, which sees the potential for big data sets to be turned into big bucks, the push by the developed world for more surveillance in the developing world raises serious cause for concern about the use - and abuse - of personal information and the application of double standards around data protection.

Greater transparency is an important part of holding aid agencies accountable not only to their funders, but also to the populations they serve. And the work that many agencies have undertaken to become more transparent should be applauded.

Nonetheless, even for the most transparent agencies, in the context of aid that facilitates the mass collection and retention of data, there remains a large gap between what aid agencies tell us about their activities and our knowledge about the data’s ultimate uses. A good ranking in the transparency index is not a sufficient answer to whether we really know to what purposes Western aid dollars are being put.