Transparency. Accountability. Impact.

These three buzzwords are everywhere these days, but what do they really mean? Buzzwords are often used because they portray the “right” message – but are less-often substantiated in practice. Kimberly Slinde Lemme, Sr. Manager, Program Finance & Compliance at Water for People, shares how her organization re-defines and approaches these concepts.


Theoretically if an organization is transparent, accountable, and claims high impact, it is working seamlessly and making great progress toward working itself out of existence, right? That’s theory. In practice these three words are much more difficult. Taking them one at a time, let’s examine what these words mean and finally, how Water For People is working to change the conversation.

Transparency: It is well-known that international aid and development work is complex, problems are messy, and theory is rarely, if ever, seen in practice. But many organizations choose to hide their challenges, only going public when they have a great success story to share. For an organization to be truly transparent, it has to be acceptable to fail – and to do so publicly. Critical to this environment is the learning and reflection that must accompany successes and failures.

As seen in a new book of essays about the organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, entitled, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience, the issues faced daily in the field can be overwhelming.  Although some are critical of the decisions made by MSF in the book, the transparency shown by the organization should be commended and imitated by others.

Accountability: While true transparency can visibly highlight the flaws and the achievements of an organization, accountability is the foundational strength of the organization. Accountability is more than sound financials produced annually. It involves staff and stakeholders alike in ensuring the right questions are asked and answered in a timely way. Organizations also must strategically balance the accountability to donors as well as communities – a good illustration of the tension between theory and practice in development.

Are there proper processes and procedures in place without being unnecessarily bureaucratic? Are the programmatic outputs clearly defined and well communicated? While juggling the complexities of development work, have you ensured proper controls, oversight and support? Is there an environment where everyone is held accountable for their work and outputs?

Impact: This buzzword is more difficult to pin down, as measuring impact is uniquely tied to an organization’s mission and goals. Goals must be clearly defined and understood in order to illustrate impact effectively.

What is the focus of impact and its measurement? Are you looking at the impact of a project on a community? Or are you looking at the impact of your work on an entire sector? The metrics could differ dramatically. In the long run, clearly defined impact measurements are as important as an organizational mission statement.

At Water For People, we look at impact over time. Aiming to reach Everyone, Forever the organization has set the bar high but believes it is the only way to break the cycle of water and sanitation poverty to create lasting impact.

Discussing and defining these buzzwords is part of our daily challenge as a development organization. How transparent is our work when tackling the challenging operational issues of a rapidly-growing organization? How accountable are we to a community when implementing a project? How does that translate to donor accountability? Is water still flowing in 10 years? If yes, can systems be replaced without additional donor funding?

If we openly and frequently share successes and failures, as we do on our TAP portal, we are being transparent. If we ensure proper follow-up and monitoring, we are being accountable.  If we visit a community – as I did in Malawi last month – where they are regularly self-financing maintenance and parts three years following the project implementation, our work has made an impact. Our aim to reach Everyone, Forever means we must refine theory so it is attainable in practice. A community never needing us again is where we are heading. Will you join us?


This article originally appeared on Water for People’s Tap Portal, a social networking site to allow collaborative groups to have deeper conversations on relevant water and sanitation topics. Water for People brings together local entrepreneurs, civil society, governments, and communities to establish creative, collaborative solutions that allow people to build and maintain their own reliable safe water systems. Kim can be contacted at: klemme (at) waterforpeople (dot) org.


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  1. Thanks for sharing Kim’s short article. I’m not sure these words still qualify as buzzwords – I’m pretty sure they’ve been in regular use by development and aid organizations longer than you or I have been alive – but still, they continue to be important concepts for every organization to think through both theoretically and operationally.

    My comment is regarding the first sentence – I’m not sure I follow: “Theoretically if an organization is transparent, accountable, and claims high impact, it is working seamlessly and making great progress toward working itself out of existence, right?” I would think the opening sentence would introduce the key idea of the article, but this idea is never really returned to until half the idea is mentioned in the penultimate sentence where it sort of hangs there as a non-sequitur. Perhaps you or Kim could comment on why and how transparency, accountability, and high impact lead to or even necessarily imply working seamlessly and working yourself out of existence?

  2. Shirley

    Transparency, Accountability, Impact (aka TAI)…Might the focus be on sustainability of a project? I believe these three words, transparency, accountability and impact, sum up what it means to empower individuals, communities, and nations to explore alternative means to become self-sufficient in reducing social disparities (e.g., poverty, literacy, etc.).

    This allows for folks at the grassroots level to be empowered as stakeholders and continue to make a difference when the support is gone. Just some thoughts.

  3. Thank you both for your comments!
    Aaron, you make a good point and I concede, I made a leap given the context of Water For People’s work. I agree with you that perhaps “working ourselves out of a job” is more along the lines of true sustainability (as mentioned above by Shirley) – which I think is supported by all three of these words transparency, accountability, and impact – and less a part of my overall post. Arguably, if you’re not transparent, accountable or have real impact your program may struggle to be sustainable in the long-run. As one of our foundations, Water For People is working in any given community or school to create a self-sustaining infrastructure so upon our exit as an NGO, the functioning ecosystem around water, sanitation and hygiene does not collapse. Our goal is that they never need NGO intervention for the same problem we fixed. When we can prove that 3, 6, and 10 years after our exit, water is still flowing and people still have access to improved sanitation then that can be called sustainable. Wasn’t explicit in my post, and for that I apologize!

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