The struggle against global poverty may be about to get an important boost from an unexpected quarter. All too often, well-intentioned development programs have been undermined in the past by inefficiency, wrong-headed priorities, and outright graft. It is crucial to enhance the effectiveness of developing countries’ public spending on social goals. The public sector, however, cannot, in general, be relied upon to reform itself in isolation. The pressure of informed domestic public opinion is a crucial stimulus.

A key missing ingredient is a strengthened role for independent watchdog groups, home-grown within developing countries, and ferociously committed to opening up government budgets and policies for public review and discussion. Part think tank and part advocacy war-room, an emerging new breed of non-governmental organizations, free from special interests, has the potential in the years ahead to promote (and take advantage of) greater transparency and accountability in how developing countries operate, share information, and interact with their citizenry.

The impact of these groups, together with parallel efforts by governments and development assistance channels to clean up their own acts, could lead to better performing governments – and better informed citizens who are more able to use their voice and vote to bring to light, and cut short, public sector missteps.

Making this happen, though, will require support – financial and other – from key actors in the international community, spurred by leaders among the donors and foundations, to help watchdog groups build up their capacity from the fragile state that most of them, starved for funding, are in now. Promising pilots have shown that rapid “scaling up” is the right next priority. The groups’ needs include not just more core support to build and sustain stronger teams, but also requirements like training and technical assistance, and cross-country networking so they can learn from each other.

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