Transparency – what are the benefits?

Judith Davey's picture
Judith Davey Director of People, Performance and Accountability

What exactly is transparency? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – what it means, why it matters and crucially, how it can make a difference to the people ActionAid works with around the world.

Hafeza Khatun and other women at a circle at Fathapur, Shahrasti, Chandpur, Bangladesh
Hafeza leads a Reflect Circle to help women discuss and learn from each other in Chandpur, Bangladesh
Photo: G.M.B. Akash/Panos/ActionAid

We asked 16 organisations to tell us what transparency means to them. What they told us is fascinating - and it's all here in our transparency report.

Here's the Cambridge Dictionaries definition: “Transparency: a situation in which business and financial activities are done in an open way without secrets, so that people can trust that they are fair and honest.” I found this a useful starting point for ActionAid's approach.

Transparency can be empowering

At ActionAid we know that transparency can be transformational. Access to accurate, timely and relevant information can make a world of difference to the lives of the poor and marginalised people that we work with in communities around the world.

Knowledge is power, and transparency is a stepping stone to increased empowerment. ActionAid is known for our participatory methods which include involving beneficiaries (or rights holders, to use our terminology) in decisions that affect them in a meaningful way. Transparency Boards in communities describe the work we are doing, who the donor is and how much the project costs.

What does transparency mean for our supporters?

We communicate clearly what we do to our supporters. Where possible, we ask people what information they want from us about our impact and effectiveness. Then we aim to deliver it succinctly, in the right form, and in the most cost-effective way.

Connecting supporters with people living in poverty overseas

Being transparent supports ActionAid’s mission and connects supporters with people living in poverty overseas. So for example, we linked up our UK supporters with women in Bangladesh who were survivors of acid attacks – a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls. Through social media they were able to exchange messages and our supporters expressed solidarity and support.

Both UK supporters and the women in Bangladesh were hugely affected by the experience – they found it emotional, engaging and uplifting. I doubt there could be a better way of getting across the impact of our work.

Being open about how we spend our money is important

Openness about our financial affairs and how we spend our money is important and we always make financial information available on our website and when we talk to supporters.

We publish financial data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a small but important aspect of our approach to transparency. But complying with standards like these can involve a lot of time and resource. Full compliance presents us with some challenges, particularly given the current lack of evidence about the usage and effectiveness of such initiatives.

How the UK public and beneficiaries regard the IATI data is not yet clear. At ActionAid we believe it’s important to focus on ways of being transparent that are proportionate and meaningful.

Join the debate to help us improve

No organisation is perfect, and ActionAid is on a journey to improve our policies and practices. This report is part of that journey and it explores some thought-provoking perspectives, from Amnesty International to the Department for International Development, the BBC to John Lewis Partnership. We might not agree with all of them, but they’re all worth reading and we’d love to know what you think too.

Photo: G.M.B. Akash/Panos/ActionAid.

Aid workers under threat: putting lives on the line in conflict zones

Jane Moyo's picture
Jane Moyo Head of Media Relations

With the barbaric death of British aid worker David Haynes at the hands of Islamic State and continuing concerns over the fate of volunteer aid convoy driver Alan Henning, the risks run by humanitarian workers in conflict situations have been thrown into sharp relief.

Young girl standing in the rubble of her home in Gaza in August 2014
Young girl standing in the rubble of her home in Gaza in August 2014
Photo: ActionAid

Aid workers are increasingly under threat

Statistics show that aid workers are increasingly under threat – both locally and internationally employed staff. We shouldn’t forget that the vast majority of those at risk are local. In 2013 whilst there were 60 international victims, local victims numbered over 400.

This should be viewed against a huge rise in the number of incidences of violence and death. In the last 10 years the figures have almost doubled, as ActionAid staff know only too well. Like many other agencies we have seen members of the ActionAid family attacked and killed in the line of duty – incidents that have devastated the entire organisation.

The best ways to protect humanitarians

Our experience shows that local knowledge and acceptance is one of the best ways to keep humanitarians safe in unstable areas. That’s why ActionAid usually only works where we have existing partnerships.

ActionAid does not have staff operating inside Syria or Iraq for example. Instead we have focussed our humanitarian efforts on Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon and Jordan, where we can build on our existing programmes.

Yet working for human rights, especially in challenging contexts will involve security risks.

Creating a safe and secure working environment requires careful planning, commitment and a collective sense of awareness and responsibility.

Three ways we help keep our teams safe

We have some non negotiable principles in place which include:

  • Primacy of Life: No staff should endanger their own life or the lives of others while in the course of duty.
  • Duty of Care: We make sure all staff are aware of the risks under which they are required to work and that they have security training. This holds true for humanitarian crises wherever they occur as our work on Ebola shows. All travel is risk-assessed and if necessary, practical measures are put in place to safeguard well-being, such as additional security equipment, back-up communications and extra security checks.
  • Right to Withdraw: Before or during deployment, our staff are given a personal choice whether to withdraw from the assignment if they consider the environment or work too risky for their personal security. We provide information and support to staff to help them make informed choices.

The dangers of militarisation of aid

Unstable regions such as the Middle East are becoming increasingly militarised and foreign forces deliver aid as part of hearts and minds operations while also targeting militants. It comes as little surprise that it is becoming difficult for aid workers to differentiate their work from aid given via military means.

This blurring of aid and military operations, even when done with the best of intentions, is highly problematic. Trust is sometimes lost and in the worst cases local people become targets for militant groups. We know of cases where schools built by aid agencies have been burnt down, putting children’s lives at risk, because militants have believed they have been built with military money from foreign powers.

It is important that humanitarian aid remains impartial, neutral and independent and that all parties to conflict must allow for its safe delivery to people who are not involved in fighting.

No-one pretends this is easy, but it is vital.

Yesterday President Obama announced the US will send 3,000 military personnel to Liberia to help fight the Ebola virus.  Watch my video report on Liberia’s crippled health systems and why help is so desperately needed.

Watch our video to get the latest on the situation on the ground in Liberia.
Photo: ActionAid

US support a long time coming

Officials have said that US military personnel will oversee the building of 17 new treatment centres, with the capacity to hold 100 patients each, as well as help train medical staff. 

The announcement has come amidst criticism that the US waited too long to respond to the crisis.

My colleague Korto Williams, ActionAid’s Country Director in Liberia told me:

"They should have been helping Liberia scale up its response back in April. But they are here now and their help is desperately needed and very welcome."

Liberia’s health centres overwhelmed

Ebola has so far killed over 2,000 people in West Africa, half of them in Liberia. Thousands more cases are predicted in the coming weeks.

Our aid workers are telling us that health centres are overwhelmed, forcing health officials to send suspected Ebola cases back into their communities. They are working with limited supplies and rudimentary equipment.

ActionAid is providing health centres with desperately needed supplies like chlorine, disinfectant, soap and towels, but specialist medical help is desperately needed.

Fear of Ebola remains the biggest challenge

Undoubtedly the medical staff sent over with US troops will be an invaluable resource in a country crippled by the Ebola epidemic. It’s important to have more health workers on the ground. 

But military personnel must understand that fear remains the biggest challenge in tackling Ebola in West Africa and any activities, such as contact tracing, or quarantine must be carried out compassionately and in close collaboration with community leaders, so as not to drive people into hiding.

More on this story


Keeping staff safe while Ebola spreads like wildfire

Mike Noyes's picture
Mike Noyes Head of Humanitarian Response

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself speaking to ActionAid colleagues in Sierra Leone and Liberia almost on a daily basis, as I work with ActionAid’s humanitarian emergencies team to help control the Ebola virus outbreak across West Africa while also ensuring they too are protected.

Mary Jabaty helps ActionAid raises awareness of Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Mary Jabaty helps ActionAid raises awareness of Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Photo: ActionAid

ActionAid staff are fighting disease and fear

Listening to my colleagues and hearing their stories of the way the disease is spreading like wildfire and the fear it is creating, it’s hard not to be moved by the dedication and commitment of our local staff who are out in Ebola-affected communities every day

To help prevent Ebola virus, ActionAid staff are:

  • telling people how the disease can be spread and how you can try to protect yourself
  • talking to families about why people who are sick or showing symptoms should seek medical attention, despite their fears
  • providing health centres with the equipment and supplies they need to protect medical staff and give patients the best chance of recovery.

As a humanitarian, and with my professional background in public health, it’s frustrating to me that the support I can offer is at a distance rather than alongside my colleagues in the field, but I know too that my presence would be as much a burden as a service to them at this time. 

Staff safety is our primary concern

I'm pleased that the safety of our staff and the people we work with is of primary concern to all involved in our humanitarian response. At the very start of our response in Sierra Leone over two months ago, training all our staff and volunteers in the prevention and control of Ebola was the first step we took and since then we continue to ensure we minimise the risk to them and the communities they work with. 

That’s why we’ve taken some difficult decisions to slow down and even suspend other non-Ebola work in the region, focussing all our capacity on battling the virus. We don’t want to be bringing people together for activities, meetings or workshops that can happen at another time, when it might mean exposing people to potential infection. 

Protecting staff from Ebola infection

As the Ebola virus spreads, we are also asking staff not involved in the Ebola response to stay at home part of the week, providing them with mobile phones and portable modems to allow them to work remotely. Our offices now have not only sanitizers and improved hand washing facilities but also infra-red thermometers to scan the temperature of visitors as they arrive.

As confirmed deaths from Ebola approach the 2,000 mark in the region, I’m incredibly proud of the courage and tireless energy of my colleagues in fighting the twin scourges of Ebola and the crippling fear it brings. 

More on this story

Photo: ActionAid.

The NATO Summit taking place in Wales yesterday and today is the largest gathering of international leaders ever held in Britain.

Mobina is a radio journalist and ActionAid-trained paralegal in Afghanistan
Mobina is a radio journalist and ActionAid-trained paralegal in Afghanistan
Photo: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid

With everything that’s going on in the world – Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Syria to name but a few – the world leaders attending will have a lot on their plate.

Afghanistan might not be right at the top of news headlines right now, but the future of Afghanistan is also on the agenda as the summit marks the end of 13 years of combat by international troops. The summit opened yesterday afternoon with a session on Afghanistan attended by US President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders.

But shockingly there were hardly any women in the room and with just one woman reported to be in the 10-strong Afghan delegation. Considering that improving the lives of women was one of the reasons given for going to war in Afghanistan, it’s hugely disappointing that women were not be part of those discussions on the future of the country.

Women must participate in talks

Less than three months ago at the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit in London, then Foreign Secretary William Hague, launched a strategy that said the UK government would ensure that women are “fully and meaningfully represented at any international peacebuilding event or summit hosted by the UK, by encouraging government delegations to fully include women representatives.”

In his speech he added: “And I am saddened that women and women’s groups still have to ask to be included at the negotiating table, as if it were a concession to be granted, or a right to be begrudgingly accorded, when in fact it is the only route to better decisions and stronger and safer societies.”
It’s not just a matter of respecting women’s rights – when women are involved in peace negotiations the outcomes are more successful. Recent research by ActionAid and Womankind found that women play a vital, if widely undervalued, role in conflict mediation, building trust and dialogue, educating children and counselling family members not to engage in violence across communities.

Despite this they continue to be side-lined by international institutions, that cannot, or will not, recognise their contribution. And the NATO summit is yet another example.

More needs to be done

Although some things for women in Afghanistan have got better in the 13 years since the fall of the Taliban, so much more needs to be done. Women in many areas can go out to work, girls can go to school, a law for ending violence against women has been introduced.

But the troop withdrawal poses serious a serious risk to the gains made. Women, particularly those who work to defend women's rights and those with jobs in public life, are being systematically targeted with violence in areas where the Taliban insurgency is gaining ground, while vital progress in women’s access to health and education is in reverse

In 2011 ActionAid carried out a rare survey of women in Afghanistan which found that nine out of ten were worried about the Taliban returning to government believing it would risk the gains made for women. They were particularly concerned about their daughters’ education. Three years later and with troops leaving, women are even more worried but also increasingly frustrated at not being listened to. That's why ActionAid was part of a No Women No Peace coalition stunt protesting about the absence of Afghan women at the NATO summit.

A stunt outside the NATO summit illustrating a lack of women's participation in peace conferences A stunt outside the NATO summit illustrating a lack of women's participation in peace conferences

ActionAid does a huge amount of work on women’s rights in Afghanistan, including training female paralegals who help women with legal issues including divorce, child custody and domestic violence. We also work with local decision making councils, known as jirgas, and have supported the creation of 180 Peace Committees across the country, including Women’s Peace Committees.

We train the members – 40% of whom are women - on conflict mediation, legislation, rights awareness, gender equality and the formal justice system. These committees are now the forum for the community to take their grievances to and have the authority to mediate conflict without taking it to the jirga, which often discriminate against women and in some cases condone and promote violence against women.

But such brave efforts by Afghan women to secure their rights and build peace at the local level must be complemented by efforts to ensure they have a voice and a space at the table of international peace negotiations too.

Ebola's economic impact on Sierra Leone and Liberia

Jane Moyo's picture
Jane Moyo Head of Media Relations

With Ebola now confirmed in Senegal and many hundreds dying across the region, the virus has brutally exposed the various weaknesses of West African health systems, including their underfunding.

Kadiatu Lamboi sticks up a poster provided by ActionAid staff to raise awareness of Ebola.
ActionAid volunteer Kadiatu Lamboi raises awareness of Ebola in Mbundorbu village, Sierra Leone.
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the worst case scenario is that economies could be adversely affected by as much as one third, which will mean even greater difficulties in the medium to long term.

Mining and farming families affected in particular

It is the poorest who are most affected and whose lives are being shattered, particularly in quarantined areas; men are unable to leave quarantined areas to get to their jobs in the mining industry and neither can families reliant on subsistence farming go to their fields.

In Liberia, farming is the main source of income for seven in ten of the population and restrictions to movement and quarantines imposed by the government are already having a severe impact on agricultural outputs.

Spectre of widespread hunger looming

With many people now unable to earn a living, trade or go to market, ActionAid workers are reporting that as well as battling Ebola, the spectre of widespread hunger is looming.

Yet the food aid we and others are delivering to families in quarantine – rice, beans and oil – can only ever be a stopgap measure.

Poorly equipped fragile economies

These are already fragile economies, poorly equipped to deal with an economic blow on this scale. The immediate calamity of people dying of Ebola has masked a silent but growing crisis that may claim even more victims.

Further reading on Ebola: