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International reports: May we have the bill?

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20 December 2010 15:56

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute, Tokyo.

Annmaree O'Keeffe's comments about the Canberra launch of the UNDP's Human Development Report (HDR) drew attention to some of the issues that surround the preparation of international reports. She noted that that HDR has survived the criticisms that have been levied at it over the years.

Observers offer all sorts of comments about the production of communiqués and reports from international agencies. Several years ago, the Financial Times offered a useful antidote to pomposity by providing a guide on how to 'Write your own Summit Report!' On the positive side, there is little dispute that the best of the statements and reports from international agencies (which surely includes the HDR) make a valuable contribution to the quality of public debate about global issues.

But certainly there are critics of the process. As Annmaree O'Keeffe noted, Emeritus Professor Ron Duncan of the ANU voiced one set of criticisms at the Canberra meeting. Professor Duncan startled the meeting by suggesting that the HDR is part of a 'naming and shaming' process of selected countries carried on by UN officials. Listening to Professor Duncan, it was not quite clear whether he objected to the process of naming and shaming selected recalcitrant countries, or rather, to the cost of using the HDR as the vehicle for doing so. One of his main points was that the naming and shaming process could usually be arranged much more cheaply than through the preparation of the HDR.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of naming and shaming, the matter of the costs of preparing international reports is surely an important one. As a rule, international agencies are coy when it comes to providing information on the costs of producing their reports. Some reports probably don't cost much to produce. But others are almost certainly expensive. My own guess is that some cost well over $1 million, and perhaps considerably more.

The first step towards working out whether we are getting value for money is to know how much these reports cost to produce. It would be a welcome step if, as a standard practice, the flagship reports contained a brief statement disclosing the total costs of production (including both staff costs and other expenses). That way, we could begin to compare the benefits and costs of reports from different international agencies. And, in addition, there would be at least some gentle pressure on the officials working on the reports to keep an eye on their costs.

Photo by Flickr user gadl.

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