Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month we’re spotlighting Julius Kapwepwe, director of programs at the Uganda Debt Network. This interview is supported by the European Commission.
1. What is the Uganda Debt Network (UDN)?
UDN’s vision is a Uganda where public resources are prudently, sustainably and equitably managed.
2. What drew you to budget and advocacy work?
From an early age, I was interested in the public and economic affairs of my country. My parents were ordinary people—traders and farmers—but they were always politically aware, so I was naturally attracted to the public sector. My parents baptized me with the names “Kapwepwe” after the former vice-president of Zambia, and “Julius” after Julius Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania. They were both African liberation giants. So, I grew up Pan-African oriented, believing that African countries have the legroom and the space to finance their development priorities.
3. What is UDN’s connection to the International Budget Partnership (IBP)? And how has the partnership affected financial transparency in Uganda over time?
UDN has partnered on the Open Budget Survey (OBS) since 2006. The survey is an evidence-based process that visibly adds value for the government. They [the government] would say, “Oh, we thought we’re connecting with people, but now I see that there’s a gap [in communication] here and there.” Or, “Oh, we have generated this [budget] publication, but have not been conscious to upload it in time for the public to meaningfully engage with it.” The OBS has contributed to quicker uploading of key documents in Uganda such as the pre-budget statements.
4. How is UDN working towards greater transparency in the acquisition and management of government debt?
When the government is looking to acquire debt, we want to look at the quality of the terms of the proposed loan and the conditions for the loan. Through the national parliament (our legislative body) there is a regular window for stakeholders to offer input in the loan management process. We are seeing great activity now compared to where we were several years ago. We are in a much better position. The issue is that although we can provide input, our input is not always implemented. But we are moving toward a more open and inclusive process.
5. UDN has developed the kind of working relationship with Uganda’s government that other countries would love to replicate. For example, the 2021 OBS was launched in Uganda with the minister of finance at the Ministry of Finance. How did that relationship develop?
Budget advocacy has required a closer working relationship with select government institutions such as the Ministry of Finance, national parliament, inspectorate of government, auditor general and the Central Bank of Uganda. It goes back to the government’s recognition that evidence-based processes such as the OBS add value, which then builds value into the government’s budget processes.
6. What is still left for UDN to accomplish in Uganda?
Our OBS aspirations are progressive and broader democratization, poverty reduction and increased self-financing of our country’s budget and development priorities. If a country does not have its own financial muscle to determine its own budget priorities and actions, it cannot fully succeed in key areas of the OBS. We will therefore be pushing to increase our own revenue bases to finance our budget priorities, determine our own poverty reduction agenda and build our own capacities.
Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Romulo Emmanuel Miral, Jr. PhD, Director General of the Philippines Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department.
Q: What is the role of the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) in strengthening accountability in public spending, and who have been its key allies in these efforts?
A: All legislation on appropriations emanates from the House of Representatives, as it holds the purse strings. That said, ultimately, the House and the Senate jointly enact all such legislation. In addition to legislation, Congress is also vested with the oversight function over the implementation of legislation, the national budget included.
As the socioeconomic think tank of the House, CPBRD provides technical assistance to the legislation and oversight processes involved in the national budget and other appropriations through research and information support. The department’s main budget-related outputs are Budget Briefs; Agency Budget Notes; the Legislative Agenda, which is formulated for each Regular Session and with the support of the Committee Affairs Bureau; and occasional research monographs, such as the Legislator’s Guide in Analyzing the National Budget. Underlying all research and information support are the principles of transparency and accountability in public spending.
We also provide context for budget and appropriation legislation and oversight. In the area of the national budget and other appropriations, CPBRD articulates this context in its research outputs by:
Elaborating on the goals of public spending, namely, macroeconomic stability; redistribution; sustainable and inclusive development; and efficient, effective and predictable allocation of limited public funds through correspondence between national priorities and long-term spending plans; and alignment with strategic national and sectoral priorities, and
Discussing and illustrating the underlying principles of transparency, accountability, fiscal discipline, and evidence-based decision making.
CPBRD works with the Committee on Appropriations and other House Committees in providing support for the legislation of the national budget and other appropriations. It is also tapped by the Speaker’s Office for information support. Externally, CPBRD worked with the Commission on Audit and Social Watch Philippines, a civil society organization working towards the creation of the House Committee on Public Accounts. For purposes of knowledge sharing, policy dialogue, and capacity building, occasional collaborations have been pursued with multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank; other government institutions, such as the Philippine Institute for Development Studies; and civil society organizations, such as the Institute for Autonomy and Governance.
Of late, CPBRD has explored the institutionalization of public participation in the preparation of the national budget, which will allow the public more avenues to strengthen transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the use of public funds.
We also support the state’s oversight function, which increases the probability of success of the legislation of the national budget and other appropriations. It ensures that laws are implemented as they are intended and that outputs and outcomes in public spending are achieved. Our support is articulated in three ways: First, attempting to put forward the policies, parameters, and standards involved in budget implementation by the executive. Second, defining policies on the use of unutilized funds. And third, emphasizing the importance of the executive’s submission of periodic execution reports to Congress.
Recently CPBRD introduced legislative evaluations as an integral component in the implementation of laws.
Q: What are the main PFM challenges you have seen and are trying to address, as far as your role is concerned?
A: CPBRD sees the following as the main problems in public financial management in the country: A lack of efficiency in the allocation and utilization of limited public funds; a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability on the part of government agencies for their outputs and outcomes; and inadequate systems for monitoring budget execution and budget accountability.
Two of the more specific and notable problems include the wide discretion of the executive in budget execution and unavailability of complete and timely monitoring and evaluation information to guide budget legislation and oversight functions.
CPBRD has proposed the following solutions to these challenges:
The establishment of a Government Integrated Financial Management Information System that will generate real-time information on budget execution and results.
Greater access by Congress of the executive’s budget monitoring systems.
Strengthening the institutional capacity of Congress to monitor and evaluate the fiscal performance of national government agencies, such as through the creation of a public accounts committee, enactment of the Budget Reform Act, and the establishment of an independent congressional budget office similar to that of the US Congressional Budget Office that serves both houses of Congress.
Q: Has your agency benefitted from IBP and what we do? How has IBP influenced your work?
A: CPBRD monitors the Open Budget Survey because it provides an independent assessment of the extent that the country exercises transparency and accountability at each stage of the budget cycle. Through the OBS, we are able to monitor whether the Philippines has made improvements over the years in comparison with other countries. Highlights of the survey are featured in CPBRD’s Facts in Figures.
The OBS also provides assessments of Congress’ exercise of its oversight function. Where oversight is perceived to be low, CPBRD is prompted to produce outputs that underscore the importance of mainstreaming oversight in the work of the legislative and to provide our principals with the basis to initiate reviews of executive agency or program performance.
CPBRD also produces and distributes the Agency Budget Notes annually during the budget season. The Notes present analyses of the budget utilization performance or absorptive capacities of agencies. Indicators on the achievement of targets and relevant findings by the Commission on Audit are also given. We intend to improve on these outputs because they are widely used even outside the House of Representatives.
Q: How crucial was CPBRD’s role in providing oversight functions for COVID funds? Can you share about specific steps your office took to ensure accountability of COVID spending by the government?
A: As a research and information support unit, CPBRD provided House Members with a total of 40 weekly monitoring reports on the Republic Act No. 11469, which declared COVID a national emergency and gave the president the powers necessary to carry out the declared national policy. The reports were organized along the four areas covered in the law, namely, social amelioration, economic stimulus, health and COVID-19, and peace and order.
After the expiration of said law, CPBRD published ‘A Results-based Assessment of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act’. The report summarized the results of the implementation of the law, identified factors that affected implementation results, and offered recommendations for improving the design and implementation of COVID-19 measures.
With the extraordinary budgetary powers given to the president under RA 11469, it was important that Congress was apprised with the extent to which agencies/departments and their respective programs were affected by discontinuances and reallocations for COVID-19 Initiatives. During the deliberations of the national budget in 2020 and 2021, CPBRD incorporated in the Agency Budget Notes updates on discontinuances and the status of COVID-19 releases, thereby highlighting the utilization performance of COVID-19 releases by the recipient agency.
Lastly, Special Issues of CPBRD Budget Briefs analyzed executive issuances affecting the agency budgets and the implementation of COVID-19 measures. Financial reports by the executive were examined and in a more simplified manner, fund releases were reported by expenditure purpose and recipient agency. Other fund sources were also covered, such as pooled savings from discontinued agency programs and unprogrammed appropriations, particularly from loan proceeds for foreign-assisted projects and Treasury-certified additional revenues. The budget briefs identified challenges to budget accountability, such as downscaled, postponed, or abandoned projects authorized in the General Appropriations Act, weak compliance by agencies to the reportorial requirements on utilization of COVID-19 releases, and proper accounting and audit of donations for COVID-19.
Q: What specific impact has your office achieved in the last two years?
A: During the pandemic, CPBRD temporarily stopped the production of our publications in hard copy and made considerable improvements to our website for online publications. Notably, there was increased demand for the Agency Budget Notes from House Members. CPBRD will resume printing of limited hard copies because of requests from the staff of House Members.
Congressional review of the budget has taken up more issues relating to operational efficiency of agencies and the overall efficiency in allocating limited public resources. It was observed that during recent budget deliberations, House Members asked executive agencies about their budget utilization performance or absorptive capacities. Also, budget proposals for the creation of new positions were also reviewed against unfilled positions of the agencies.
Online fora on the formulation of a national evaluation policy conducted by CPBRD in partnership with the Senate Economic Planning Office and the United Nations Children Fund UNICEF were well attended. The need for a culture of evaluation is now better appreciated.
Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Rommel Rodríguez, Macroeconomics and Development Area Coordinator, and Jaime López, Transparency Researcher, both from the National Development Foundation (FUNDE) in El Salvador.
Q: What is FUNDE’s area of work and main aims?
A: FUNDE has four areas of work: Macroeconomics and Development, Transparency, Citizen Security, and Territorial (urban, rural, and environmental) Development. Our mission is to work for a fair, open, supportive, and sustainable society. Our vision is to generate innovative thinking, proposals, and actions in the field of development. In 2008, we started to work more on fiscal affairs from a macroeconomic lens, and more recently we began to focus more of our work on engaging the broader public in how budgetary matters impact their lives.
Q: Describe the partnership between FUNDE and the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI)?
A: In general, it is a relationship based on mutual consultation. There have also been opportunities to collectively host events or advocacy activities. For example, FUNDE, ICEFI and other organizations recently made a joint statement on the possible loan agreement between the IMF and El Salvador and the use of bitcoin in the country. We also work together to co-lead the Citizen Oversight Committee of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, which is playing a critical oversight role in monitoring public spending on COVID relief.
Both organizations are part of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, the Latin American and Caribbean Tax Justice Network, and the Central American Tax Justice Network, and share an interest in promoting tax transparency and public participation in tax decisions. Together with eight other organizations from Central America, FUNDE and ICEFI recently created the Center Against Corruption and Impunity in the North of Central America, where we seek to address transparency and corruption in the governments of the Northern Triangle.
Q: What have you and FUNDE gained from the partnership with IBP and our training and advocacy initiative?
A: We’ve managed to increase pressure on the government to achieve greater budget transparency. The current administration in El Salvador, like the previous ones, avoids important public finance issues and needs to revise certain aspects of its handling of the national budget. For this, the support of the EU has been vital in its interactions with the Treasury and the requests it has channeled to El Salvador’s government about where budgetary improvements can be made. Thanks to the prestige and legitimacy of IBP, we have established a critical mass of actors and organizations interested in budget matters. Like other organizations working on open budgets, we have already carried out education and fiscal training but are limited by participants’ varied interests. The presence of IBP has made it possible to address the issue in a more structured manner and with a long-term vision. The term “transparency” has been used excessively in El Salvador to the point where it has lost its meaning. During our trainings and workshops with IBP, it is emphasized that we are specifically talking about “budget transparency”, which helps participants understand the issues more precisely and therefore take targeted action.
Q: How did El Salvador score on IBP’s COVID study? What are your main impressions?
A: The COVID study helped us think more systematically about financing for emergencies, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to use that process to highlight in very clear and discrete ways the processes that were followed as well as the lapses that occurred. For instance, government officials failed to follow the formal processes that exist for administering and authorizing the budget. We were able to highlight positive developments, such as the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee in the legislature, as well as lapses, such as the fact that the government has not evaluated or published information on the impact of its relief package.
In fact, to this day the government still has not produced a specific document that accurately details its 2020 spending on COVID-19 relief. A budget expenditure report is available, but not a specific document for pandemic-related spending. The Citizen Oversight Committee has been focused on getting this information.
Although the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee was a positive development, in practice some officials have been reluctant to provide timely and substantive information to the committee. This is happening despite the fact that the legislative decree that created the Committee allows for the committee to have unrestricted access to information and indicates that officials who fail to provide information should be sanctioned.
Q: What recommendations do you have for the government of El Salvador to improve accountability for COVID-related expenses?
A: After the initial lockdown, the government resumed monthly publications on its online portal, including for information regarding the execution and modification of the budget. The information is relevant but lacks detail; for example, it does not include the objective of specific expenditures. The information published on the government portal also lacks detail about the sources of financing, including tax or other contributions to the treasury, donations, external loans and financing, and the placement of securities, among other things.
The Ministry of Finance claimed that urgency is the reason it did not introduce loans through the standard budget process, which would have meant requesting that the Legislative Branch approve the additional resources into budget line items. Instead, they introduced new funds into the budget through an Executive Agreement. Nevertheless, executive agreements to allocate funds and/or modify the budgets of public entities through the Official Gazette must also be made public, without exception. To date, several of them are not public.
The public portal of Comprasal should be updated as soon as possible with information on COVID-related purchases. The Prevention and Mitigation of Disasters Fund and the Trust for the Economic Recovery of Salvadoran Companies, which is administered by the Development Bank of El Salvador, must also provide detailed information on their sources of financing, the distribution of funds, and the execution of expenses, as well as a public list of beneficiaries. This information must be made publicly available online.
A public health emergency is testing whether Gambian civil society can keep tabs on the national budget
The Start of a Change Agent
After decades of dictatorship, The Gambia had its first transfer of power by popular election in December 2016. This election brought hope, but unravelling decades of dictatorial rule has proven difficult. Government funds earmarked for public projects often end up in the hands of individuals with connections to politicians or used to benefit special interests.
Ahead of the watershed 2016 election, Marr Nyang resigned from his job at a well-regarded law firm to embark on a grassroots voter education and engagement campaign. Following the campaign’s success, he established Gambia Participates as a civil society organization to bolster good governance.
“I started Gambia Participates because I realized there were no organizations promoting fiscal transparency, doing anti-corruption work, or bringing the public into the fold,” Nyang said. “It was only done at the government level and inconsistently. I decided to start Gambia Participates in 2016 during that toxic political environment. After the change in government, I started pushing for fiscal discipline, transparency, and accountability. Fast forward and we’ve seen great improvements, but also have big challenges when it comes to the mismanagement of public wealth.”
The organization works to ensure budget transparency and a budget that “reflects the needs and aspirations of the people,” as Marr puts it. They also monitor and hold the government accountable for how it spends the budget. Over time, they have successfully nudged the Gambian government, and the Ministry of Finance in particular, to improve governance standards and budgetary reporting.
In December 2020, as part of its work to monitor and hold the government accountable, Gambia Participates sued the National Assembly for violating the budget process by forcefully inserting a US$1 million loan scheme for Members of Parliament in the 2021 budget. On 4 May 2021, the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional and the loan scheme was consequently removed from the enacted budget.
The Open Budget Survey as a Vehicle for Reform
The Open Budget Survey, published by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) in collaboration with partners in close to 120 countries around the world, helps local civil society assess and confer with their government on the reporting and use of public funds. The Gambia took part in the Open Budget Survey for the first time in 2019 thanks to Gambia Participates and its dynamic leader.
Since the country took part in the survey, the government signalled a willingness to make its budget documents more transparent. For the first time, the Ministry of Finance published the Executive’s Budget Proposal (EBP) on time and well before the enacted budget was approved. The EBP is the national budget that is tabled before parliament and is widely considered to be the government’s most important annual economic policy statement. Timely publication of the EBP is critical, as it can enable the public and CSOs to make submissions on their needs and priorities to their elected representatives before the budget is approved into law.
Prior to this, the EBP had only been made available in hard copy for the Ministry of Finance and National Assembly. By making the EBP and other such documents available to the public, the Gambia demonstrated its support for informed public debate on the budget. Furthermore, this is one of the key criteria used to assess and rank countries in the Open Budget Survey. The government also published the 2019 budget on the Ministry of Finance website for the first time.
These are significant wins for the people of The Gambia and for advancing global transparency norms. “I believe the Open Budget Survey was a wake-up call for the government to acknowledge its weaknesses and work towards improving them by collaborating with civil society,” Marr said. “In partnership with IBP we realize it is important for there to be a standard roadmap to ensure increased budget transparency, citizen participation in the budget, and accountability around the budget process.”
When COVID-19 hit, Gambia Participates leveraged the skills learnt from conducting the Open Budget Survey to analyze how COVID-19 emergency funds were being used and to hold the government accountable.
Pivoting during the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test of good governance in the country since the end of dictatorial rule. As the virus spread, the government created a $10 million emergency response fund to provide the medical sector with the tools to keep the pandemic under control. Gambia Participates leveraged the skills and knowledge obtained from its work on the Open Budget Survey to track where and how the emergency funds were being spent.
As the investigation into COVID-19 spending unfolded, field workers from Gambia Participates began noticing a lack of personal protective equipment among frontline workers throughout the country. They also discovered hospitals in major population centers lacked basic items, like overhead thermometers. Frontline workers that Gambia Participates interviewed said funds had been mismanaged just as they had been during the Ebola crisis of 2014-16.
Gambia Participates published an investigation titled “Corona, The Gambia, and the Millions,” in which it detailed the misappropriation of emergency funds. According to the investigation, only $3 million of the $10 million emergency fund had been spent. Moreover, much of the money that was spent had gone to “motor vehicles and hotels while treatment centers and isolation centers are in dilapidated conditions.”
The Gambian Ministry of Health cooperated with the investigation and publicly reported that the emergency funds had been spent on the procurement of medical equipment, the refurbishment of health facilities, as well as vehicles, training, and hotel accommodations for quarantined individuals. Field workers from Gambia Participates, however, painted a very different picture.
Everywhere they visited, health workers and stakeholders complained of a lack of training on COVID-19 protocols; unfurnished isolation centers; inadequate sanitary materials; fraudulent names on the list of frontline workers eligible for hardship allowances; and, above all, a lack of preparedness. In the initial phases of the emergency response, there was no plan or budget in place to determine the actual expenditure of funds.
Using the findings as a springboard, Gambia Participates offered policy reforms designed to prevent public sector corruption and strengthen the public finance sector and health facilities. While the Ministry of Health acknowledged the accusations of corruption and misuse of funds, it is yet to present solutions.
Hard Work Remains
In January 2021, Gambia Participates, with support from IBP, held a workshop with key stakeholders from the Ministry of Finance, the National Assembly, civil society organizations, and the media to identify opportunities for improving fiscal transparency, budget oversight, and public participation in the national budget. Participants reviewed recommendations from the 2019 Open Budget Survey and reflected on gaps in the budget process that hindered the country’s performance.
The outcome was a detailed roadmap that included a budget calendar to facilitate predictability and planning for the fiscal year. “When we designed the roadmap, each institution and stakeholder presented their challenges and opportunities, and then we discussed how to advocate for the roadmap to be part of the budget process,” Marr said. Gambia Participates sent the roadmap to the Ministry of Finance and the national audit office to ensure officials included it in their budget plans. All three stakeholders will hold discussions about how the government can start implementing the roadmap to fill in the gaps it has in budget transparency and public participation, and how Gambia Participates can collaborate with the government to implement the roadmap’s recommendations.
The tide is starting to shift in The Gambia when it comes to public access to and scrutiny of budget decisions. Between Gambia Participates’ scrupulous work and the government’s willingness to improve, attention is focused on building long-term budget practices that will prepare the country for the next public health or other crisis.
“The national budget is central to the socio-economic development of a country,” Nyang notes. “It is crucial for citizens to have a say in the budget process and to mainstream their priorities, which we continue to do at Gambia Participates by facilitating discussion between government officials and the electorate before and after the budget is approved.”
With IBP’s support, the work carried out by Gambia Participates demonstrates that when civil society is properly equipped, open budget practices can be championed even during the immensely challenging conditions of a pandemic. When community-led organizations galvanize citizens to hold their governments accountable, the voices of those most in need are centered.
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talk with Elena Calistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian-based NGO that builds research-based, data-driven advocacy tools. Funky Citizens was one of our research partners on the COVID-19 assessment.
Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets?
A: It was 2011 and I got a letter from the tax authorities demanding I pay extra money. And despite being a highly educated person who works in civil society, monitoring issues related to transparency, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find any publicly available information to help me understand why I owed this money. I ended up paying the tax without knowing why and promised myself that it would never happen to me again.
Together with people from various sectors, we started looking into government budgets. We went through thousands of tables, hundreds of PDFs, and made hundreds of public officials hate us with all the FOIA requests. But we managed to visualize data related to public budgets, sometimes did cooking shows just to explain budgets for the average citizens and worked with journalists to investigate government expenditures. Essentially, I took my vulnerability in the face of authority and decided to empower myself and others to understand where our tax money goes.
Q: What is Funky Citizens’ primary goals and mission?
A: Founded in 2012, Funky Citizens promotes active citizenship and encourages citizens to get involved in initiatives meant to make the state institutions more responsible. We often collaborate with investigative journalists, given our expertise on topics such as the judiciary, public administration and, of course, public budgets. We are well-versed in data-based advocacy, communication and civic education.
Q: What was the process you used for conducting research for the Open Budget Survey COVID study?
A: We had been following COVID-19 allocations even before we started working with IBP on the COVID module of the Open Budget Survey. IBP’s call for transparency in the COVID-19 response and relief expenditures hit close home for us and prompted us to look early on at what was happening on the legislative front. This made it relatively easy to have a good understanding of the larger context, but also to choose the package that was most relevant as a case study for how the Romanian authorities responded to the pandemic.
In the end, even though there are numerous measures that could have been analyzed, we decided on the package that was passed relatively early (a budget revision with numerous measures ranging from fiscal stimulus to unemployment benefits or social assistance to rapid funds allocation for hospitals to the wider healthcare response). Starting from that package, we investigated follow-up to these measures, complementary resources and any changes to the initial package.
Q: What challenges did you face in the research process?
A: As in most countries that were assessed in the study, Romania suffered from a lack of transparency in the emergency response. For example, as part of the state of emergency regulations, FOIA response times were doubled, and given the fact that the Romanian authorities did not provide any regular updates on COVID-19-related spending, these restrictions made data collection difficult.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: In an ideal world, the average citizen shouldn’t care about budgets. They would get good public services, decent infrastructure and a great quality of life from their tax money. But I think it is obvious for everyone that we live in a far from ideal world so monitoring what is happening with the budgets is necessary in the face of misspending and sometimes rampant corruption, even during times of crisis. But what we should have is an awareness that the transparency of the budgets is essential. Citizens should be sensitive to any attempt to hide any information related to public expenditures, even if that means that the data released about such expenditures will only be “consumed” by some activist data geeks or investigative reporters. Citizens should be the allies of people engaged in this work that can “translate” for the wider public, so they understand what is happening with the taxes that they are paying.
When the Covid pandemic broke in early 2020, there was near unanimous consent that a crisis of this magnitude required governments to act boldly and swiftly to meet the needs of their people. By the end of 2020, governments mobilized a staggering $14 trillion in fiscal policy responses of different types.
While welcoming these responses, a chorus of voices, including ours, urged governments to put in place the transparency and accountability arrangements necessary to ensure that the massive resources being mobilized did not go to waste. Responding to the crisis in an open and accountable manner was a way for governments to restore public trust and build back better.
Our assessment shows that more than two-thirds of surveyed governments are falling short of managing their fiscal responses in a transparent and accountable manner, thereby jeopardizing the effectiveness and impact of their responses to the crisis (Table of Results).
These shortcuts and limitations are neither necessary nor inevitable. Many countries across regions and incomes have chosen a different path. An urgent and speedy response does not have to come at the expense of accountability. There are three key findings in our COVID accountability report.
1. Governments have failed to adopt key measures to enhance accountability that many voices had demanded when governments began to announce their relief packages.
Only in about a quarter of countries assessed were auditors able to produce and publish audit reports on Covid fiscal packages before the end of 2020.
About half of the governments surveyed published little information on the implementation of policy initiatives.
Approximately two thirds of surveyed countries failed to follow transparent procurement procedures.
Despite this, some countries have shown a different way is possible. For example:
Paraguay has a one-stop-shop site that publishes information on all pandemic-related procurement.
In Jamaica, the Auditor General published three concurrent audit reviews of the government’s cash transfer program, and the Ministry of Finance worked closely with the national audit office to follow up on audit recommendations.
Recognizing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, Canada, the Philippines and Sweden published a Gender Impact Assessment of their COVID-19 response. And in Togo, in a short period of 10 days, the government established a transparent platform for a cash transfer program that prioritized women.
2. The role of legislatures has been limited during the pandemic.
In almost half the countries in our assessment, governments introduced fiscal policy measures through executive decrees, side-stepping normal legislative and approval processes and preventing public debate. Not surprisingly, countries that bypassed their legislatures were also generally less transparent in their Covid-related spending.
Again, some countries showed that a better way is possible. For example:
In Nepal, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee investigated irregularities in procuring medical equipment and supplies to hold to account those responsible for these failures.
In the Philippines, weekly reports on COVID-19 response actions are sent to a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee that oversees implementation.
3. Public participation in the formulation and execution of COVID policy responses is virtually non-existent.
This has not only excluded the public from having a voice in decisions on priority-setting during the pandemic but it has also deprived governments of inputs which could greatly improve the effectiveness of their actions. Only 10 out of 120 countries made any meaningful efforts at engaging with their populations in the design and oversight of relief monies.
Even as governments largely kept the public at bay, civil society groups have been active in mobilizing local communities and amplifying their needs to government. One of the most successful examples of civil society and government collaboration is the Asivikelane initiative in South Africa which is giving an active voice to informal settlement residents in major cities who are faced with severe basic service shortages during the crisis. Through targeted advocacy and campaigns, the initiative has already secured improved access to water, sanitation and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than one million people.
There are practical steps governments and donors can take to bolster accountability as part of the ongoing response and to build back better.
Governments can adopt reforms now such as publishing monthly progress report and disclosing procurement details in open formats. They can plus up resources for national auditors to conduct expedited audits and take remedial measures in response to their reports. They can take actions to restore legislative oversight. Further, they can also leverage existing mechanisms in the executive, legislatures and within national audit offices to facilitate citizen participation in the formulation, approval and execution of new Covid-related packages.
Over the long-term, governments can strengthen systems in the annual budget cycle to be better prepared for future crises. These include reforming legal and regulatory frameworks to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas such as procurement, oversight and participation. They can also integrate innovations that emerged from this crisis, such as providing user-centered information.
The international donor community can play an important role in advancing accountability norms in emergency spending. As part of their assistance, donors should urge and support country-led efforts to publish more information about what governments are spending and its impacts and to facilitate oversight by legislatures, auditors and citizens.
The COVID crisis is far from over. We must keep mobilizing resources for the global COVID response, including filling the funding gap for COVAX to ensure everyone has equitable access to vaccines. But if we are serious about equity and justice, we must simultaneously get serious about accountability. This is about ensuring assistance reaches those who need it most. When governments do not deliver as promised, underserved communities bear the brunt.