Transparency: An Antiseptic for Corruption and Waste

America's foreign aid programs must be accountable to taxpayers, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said in a speech at AEI on June 6. He posited transparency as the best way to ensure accountability. Senator Coburn, the ranking member (and former chairman) of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid programs, offered three case studies in transparency and accountability from his legislative portfolio.

Senator Tom Coburn
Senator Tom Coburn

Senator Coburn defined transparency as the posting on a public website of information about aid recipients, what is to be purchased, terms and conditions, progress reports, and documentation of measurable outcomes. "Transparency is not the goal," he said. "The goal is accountability--the first and critical step to which is transparency." Transparency is the best method for several reasons: it exposes the true quality of a program, "eviscerating spin" and taking no sides; it enlists the public in oversight; and it deters bad practices.

According to Senator Coburn's experience with aid program scandals, there is a familiar order of events. A charge is raised against a program or agency and then promptly denied. Oversight exposes the charge's truth or falsehood; if true, the embarrassed agency offers no successful refutation, and reform begins. This last step is not frequently reached, he said: "Reform is rare because oversight isn't popular. . . . It takes energy and commitment. . . . Congress is lazy, and it cares a lot more about the next election than the next generation."

The first case study was of the malaria control program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Some criticized the program for its use of ineffective drugs and preventive measures, but USAID's response to Congressional hearings was inadequate because of opaque data. The hearings Senator Coburn chaired made USAID listen to its critics, after which the agency committed to full online transparency and measurable goals.

The second case involved the renovation of the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City. The proposed costs doubled to $2 billion between 2004 and 2006, and Congressional hearings exposed poor designs and inappropriate contracts as the source of the problems. The UN's reform promises were broken: its website revealed little, there was no audit, and costs continued to rise. "Transparency is an obligation the UN has to people around the world," Senator Coburn said. The only way to hold the UN accountable is to "condition U.S. funds on seeing where the money goes."

Senator Coburn's final example was U.S. radio broadcasting in Iran, which operates under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Charges emerged that the U.S.-funded broadcasts were promoting the regime in Tehran, so Congress ordered English-language transcripts of six months' worth of broadcasts. Senator Coburn described the results as "dangerous"--U.S. public diplomacy consisted of anti-American propaganda. But the BBG has not complied with requests for full translation of its broadcasts, and more BBG whistleblowers are reporting reprisals as a result of their criticism. The BBG, Senator Coburn said, "can only be saved by the disinfecting quality of transparency."

Concluding with a discussion of Congress's role, Senator Coburn recommended holding hard-hitting hearings, writing transparency and measurable targets into all legislation, increasing funding for inspectors general, and complying with the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which requires full online documentation of all federal spending.

AEI's Roger Bate, the event's moderator, has written extensively about transparency in foreign aid and nongovernmental organizations. In his March 2007 Health Policy Outlook, he addressed the malaria program of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Bate explored its murky medicine-procurement process and praised Senator Coburn's attempts to impose transparency--what the senator calls "a great antiseptic"--on the Global Fund.

For a video and summary of this event, visit To read Bate's Health Policy Outlooks on this subject, visit

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