TAI Weekly

TAI Weekly | November 21, 2017
Print Page

TAI spotlight…

Transparent to a Fault? The Important Role of Transparency in Context of Closing Civic Space

Michael Jarvis explores the ways by which transparency can be useful on both the defensive and offensive fronts to build greater resilience or resistance in the context of closing civic space. This piece is part of a new European Foundation Centre blog series.


In case you missed it…

How about a new model of collaborative philanthropy? Co-Impact brings together a host of big-name philanthropists to mobilize $500m for systems change.  Olivia Leland argues the approach will overcome limitations of fragmented funding and struggles of big funders to connect to identify and support “investment ready” change efforts. What’s really new? Hard to argue that Gates funding has been small to date – big bets and pooled funding mechanisms are well tested, so perhaps the real impact will be in providing the space for the Nilekanis, Gates, and Skolls to share, compare and jointly strategize, and encouraging coalitions of social change leaders (potential recipients) to do the same.

Many of these major philanthropists may have breathed a sigh of relief that the emerging US tax legislation protects exemptions for charitable deductions.  They may want to be more worried that a provision would allow churches, charities, and foundations to keep tax breaks for political contributions – promising to unleash a new wave of special interest funding with little or no disclosure requirements.

Talking of dark money – our numbers for the week are 52 and 105. According to Transparency International, British shell companies have been involved in 52 cases of money laundering scandals amounting to $105 billion over the past 14 years. Across the Atlantic, a Global Witness investigation links the Trump Organization to the Trump Ocean Club in Panama, allegedly used to launder money from Latin American drug cartels, while the worlds of Harvey Weinstein, the Trump Organization and wealth Kazakh fugitives collided in court in Miami in connection to money laundering allegations. Efforts to comply with a growing list of anti-money laundering regulations are absorbing 70% of banks’ entire compliance spending according to David Steward at software giant SAS, as automation of analytics aids investigators.

The Paradise Papers continue to yield more stories of strategies to tax avoidance. The BBC reports how an oil firm set up a shell company in Bermuda to buy its stake in a Scottish production platform to escape tax burdens. They could have stayed closer to home (as Apple did in switching to Jersey) – so what makes the UK an attractive tax haven? TI’s research unearths some loopholes in the regulation system. For more reflections and resources on tax and fiscal governance, check out this round up from ODI.

Most Europeans are now online, presenting a big opportunity for engaged, informed and innovative societies, so why are cat memes more prevalent than cases of meaningful online civic participation? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) argues digital tech can still aid social transformation around three pillars of openness – opening up democratic decision-making to citizen participation, opening up data, and opening up digital social innovation processes. At the same time, another survey by EIU together with the Singapore government finds that most global citizens are unaware of open data – suggesting that is the primary barrier to its use and effectiveness.

It may not help that citizens face a growing challenge of discerning fact from disinformation. Freedom House has new research detailing the growth in disinformation since 2009, with 30 countries now paying “armies of opinion shapers” to “spread government views, drive particular agendas and counter government critics on social media.” How to respond? The Knight Foundation announced $4.5m in new funding to create more informed digital engagement and published a report on lessons learned from past funding that is worth a read. Tom King provides additional suggestions, including reducing the need to compete among investigative journalists and civic society (allowing to focus on social impact, not profits, and leading to more results like Paradise Papers) and a fund for public interest media. Funders may also want to encourage grantees to review new insights on handling ethical issues in data journalism.

Of course, citizens have some responsibility to question and research themselves. As Lucy Bernholz spells out, civil society “is neither exempt from nor innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live”. She urges nonprofits and foundations to be ready for countervailing messaging. Have you been “doxed”? If not, you likely will be soon.

One message we are all getting is to be aware of the limits of civic tech solutions. Making All Voices Count’s continues to offer more insights on the potential of civic technology in challenging and changing governance structures – see the summary of their learning event in Pakistan on tech-driven accountability approaches to power, politics, and change, and the work of Tony Roberts and Kevin Hernandez on citizen participation technologies in the Philippines. The report argues that a techno-centric gaze (i.e. focused on technology as a starting point instead of the end users) obscures the non-use and exclusion of many people. What about the use of democratic and accountable budgeting? Brenda Halloran draws on lessons from Kenya, India and South Africa.

In this period of fragile democracies and political turmoil in many parts of the world, how do you ensure open data are fully embedded and transcends political change? Liz Carolan of Open Data Charter reflects on the experiences in USA, Philippines, Kenya, and France and came up with three strategies.

Of course, hopes for open data become even more constrained in contexts of repression. CIVICUS Monitor puts a spotlight on the situation of human rights defenders and media in Libya, raising concerns over the newly-drafted constitution which was deemed insufficient in protecting the independence and rights of media, and in protecting NGOs working with refugees from backlash. On a more positive note, the UK government tries to set an example with its intention to develop a Civil Society Strategy, and Italy approved a law protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation. Transparency International, while lauding the move, hopes it builds momentum for comprehensive whistle-blower protection legislation across the EU. For more inspiration, read up on the work of a small French monitoring watchdog that helped secure the guilty verdict for Teodoro Obiang, and on the new French due diligence legislation which allows anti-corruption organizations to file civil party cases.

Returning to the theme of driving sector-level change, Roopa Kudva argues the need to go beyond funding programs to investing in organizational capacity. The Center for Effective Philanthropy would likely agree – their new report digs into what makes for a productive grantee-program officer relationship. Drawing on the perspectives of nearly 20,000 grantees of 86 foundations, they emphasize the value of transparency and understanding the context of nonprofits’ work, as well as the importance of organizational culture and leadership. Finally, David Bonbight reflects on last month’s Feedback Summit to highlight the difference between feedback and feedback loop. 

Of potential interest…

Calls for proposals, papers, and course enrollment

On the calendar…

From the TAI Team