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.
This work forms part of IBP’s COAB initiative and is supported by the European Commission.
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are spearheading budget advocacy on the ground to affect transformational change in their communities.
This month we talked with Ubagu Martha Amuche, a member of COMEN (the Community Empowerment Network) in the Ojoto community in Anambra state.
Q: What inspired you to start working with COMEN?
A: To start working with COMEN was challenging, however, it is also the most satisfying volunteering community development work. I wanted to make a positive contribution to the growth and development of my community, build a network of people with shared goals, and gain professional skills and experience to meet the demands of society.
Q: What skills or tools did IBP bring that helped COMEN achieve their successes?
A: IBP supported us in gaining budget advocacy and process skills and shared reflections and lessons learned to help us achieve our successes. COMEN has been able to generate useful evidence by monitoring what the government is currently doing with the funds that have been budgeted in health sectors and other areas.
Q: What achievement with COMEN are you most proud of and why?
A: I am proud of leading members to advocate for Primary Health Care Centers, championing and defending civil society space and the formation of a partner network. Our partnership with the Justice Development and Peace Caritas helped us to influence and improve Primary Health Care Centers’ service delivery and provide the evidence needed for the #FixmyPHC campaign, which directly led to governments increasing money spent on Primary Health Care Centers.
Q: How has engaging in budget advocacy affected your life?
A: Engaging in budget advocacy has helped to understand the implications of budget choices and take action to help shape community budget choices.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: Citizen involvement in budgeting makes local service delivery more efficient and effective. Therefore, citizen participation in the budget is very important for the individual, government and society at large.
During the summer of 2020, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) worked collaboratively to conduct a broad scan of civil society organizations (CSOs) working in the taxation space with a specific interest in domestic taxation. Our objective was to create a comprehensive picture of the emerging field, understand its general features, the challenges faced by CSOs and to provide a resource for others, including CSOs, governments and donor agencies. This scan coincided with the emergence of IBP’s Tax Equity Initiative, which “works to promote citizen engagement with budget policies and processes to make them more equitable and inclusive”. The ICTD has continued to deepen its work in this field, launching a Tax and Civil Society research programme earlier this year.
The global CSO scan
The CSO scan database presents 171 organizations working across 66 countries and 7 regions, and provides a comprehensive overview of what each organization does, the types of work they are engaged in, how they approach their work (theory of change), the types of taxes they focus on (both domestic and international), whether they are part of any international networks and lists their primary publications on tax from recent years.
Insights from the scan, complemented by findings from an online survey and in-depth interviews conducted with select organizations, are summarized in IBP’s new paper “Of Citizens and Taxes: A global scan of civil society work on taxation.” While the paper provides a comprehensive look at the characteristics of the organizations, this blog highlights trends from low- and middle-income countries and provides some ideas for how CSOs and others in this space can use the scan in their work.
International and regional networks
The CSO scan revealed that strong regional and international (both South-South and North-South) civil society coalitions exist in this space. Networks such as Tax Justice Network Africa, Latindadd and Tax and Fiscal Justice Asia have contributed to an environment in which civil society groups have been able to enter into tax work, receive support, and build capacity around issues of taxation, enabling greater engagement in international and domestic debates around tax policy, tax reforms, and tax administration. A few key findings emerge within each of the regions:
- The Asian CSOs, compared to other organizations in the sample, are the most heterogeneous in terms of aims, ideologies and practice. This is unsurprising given the continent’s size and varying socioeconomic and cultural contexts. There is however noticeably less coordination and fewer networks and linkages between the listed organizations.
- The sub-Saharan Africa sample is also diverse in terms of the type of work organizations are undertaking. Across the region, there is a general dependence on large aid bodies, charities, and state aid organizations with fewer fully independent or locally funded CSOs. While Asian CSOs tend to have links with trade unions and labor organizations, this is less apparent in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, there is a growing number of national-level CSOs increasingly involved in issues around domestic revenue mobilisation, likely due to encouragement from organizations like TJN-A, which has robust membership on the continent.
- In the Middle East and North Africa, organizations tend to have a more consistent focus on domestic tax policy, civil society participation, and fiscal transparency. These issues are often addressed in connection with broader social issues such as democratic participation, civil rights, and gender disparities. The Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) plays a central role by facilitating and publishing most of the research and reports produced in the region.
- In Latin America, Latindadd is a crucial network and is an example of a pioneer in South-South cooperation, illustrated by its extensive collaborations with the Africa Forum and Network on Debt and Development. The existence of these networks is important as they provide a space for collaboration and sharing of best practices, especially given the relatively new tax policy practice arena in many lower-income countries.
What does this mean for civil society work going forward?
The CSO scan is a useful tool for organizations in lower-income countries, which are becoming increasingly prominent in the taxation space, thanks largely to the work done by regional and international networks. The work that for example Latindadd is undertaking to foster South-South cooperation can be facilitated through this scan. Organizations can search for partners within and across countries which are doing similar work and form linkages to either collaborate on mutual areas of interest or learn from each other. Where such linkages may exist at the regional level, not all CSOs in the scan are part of a network. This scan additionally provides an avenue for inter-regional learning amongst CSOs. The focus on domestic taxation is important, as this has largely been a neglected area of work in these regions.
For IBP and other large (I)NGOs, the scan can be used to scope out interesting CSO partners to support in countries of interest. It can also be used to connect existing in-country CSO partners (that for IBP, work on budget issues) to CSOs that are working on tax, specifically. Organizations like the ICTD can use the scan to align research work with policy interest areas. For example, the scan shows that many organizations are interested in – and work on – tax expenditures, but evidence on their effectiveness as policy tools is scant at best. Accordingly, there is scope for research on the impacts of tax expenditures that might help both civil society and governments do a better job at identifying policy priorities and targeting interventions. There are also some regional gaps in CSO activity, the key one being in Asia, and this is an opportunity for donors, international NGOs, and large regional CSOs to foster and support more tax work in this area. These actors can also play a role in addressing CSO constraints, particularly in funding and capacity (technical and human resources) which would go a long way in shifting the locus of influence and power from regional networks to national and grassroots CSOs.
While the CSO scan tells us a lot about what the field broadly looks like at the present moment, there are large opportunities for future research and work. In exploring these new avenues, the ICTD and IBP intend to continue collaborating and engaging with each other to support CSO capacity building and research targeting key topics and capabilities. These include topics such as: the effectiveness of CSO engagement in tax policy-making; how broad popular support can be encouraged for progressive tax policy agendas; or even what the impact of Covid-19 has been on progressive tax policy advocacy.
*Ruvimbo Chidziva is pursuing a master’s degree from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and is a Research Assistant at the International Centre for Tax and Development. Fariya Mohuiddin is a Senior Program Officer for the Tax Equity Program at the International Budget Partnership.
This blog was co-authored with the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) and can be found on their website here.
On November 17-19, members of the Addis Tax Initiative (ATI) will gather virtually for their Global Assembly. The ATI was set up in 2015 at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to enhance domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) in developing countries. Its members include donor countries interested in supporting tax reforms, developing country governments committed to enhancing revenue collection and improving tax administration systems, and supporting organizations, including multilateral organizations, regional tax administration bodies, private philanthropic foundations, and international civil society groups.
As of October 2020, IBP has formally joined the initiative as a supporting organization, as part of its efforts to strengthen the role of civil society in promoting more equitable taxation in developing countries. IBP’s own Tax Equity Initiative has started working in three areas: (a) creating a better knowledge base to build the field of CSO tax work; (b) fostering tax transparency and participation; and (c) supporting CSO engagement with domestic tax reforms in developing countries through training, technical assistance, peer learning and more. ATI provides an important venue for discussion and coordination efforts in all of these areas.
We are honored to be formally joining the effort as the ATI adopts its new 2025 Declaration, which innovates and pushes the DRM agenda. It explicitly recognizes that it is not enough for governments to raise additional revenue, they need to do it in a more equitable way. Second, it supports the important role that “accountability stakeholders”—including legislators, the media, the public, and civil society groups—can and should play in ensuring that tax policy and administration are equitable and effective. It also highlights the importance of promoting transparency and accountability around tax expenditures, something that IBP has been working on through a regional project with a number of Latin American CSOs.
In coming years, we plan to contribute to ATI and its mission, bringing to bear our rich experience in working with civil society groups, governments and other actors in promoting more general reforms in budget policies and processes. We will support CSO tax work at country level, continuing our engagement on tax expenditures in Latin America and launching a new program to support civil society engagement with tax reforms in Africa. And we will work with the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency in promoting more transparency and citizen participation in tax policies and processes.
Most of our initial efforts, have focused on building a better knowledge base for the work that civil society organizations can do to promote more equitable taxation.
A few weeks ago, we published a comprehensive literature review of the political economy of domestic tax reforms, and a companion piece offering “reflection points,” or questions and suggestions for civic actors to consider as they plan work around tax reform.
Today, we are publishing the results of a global scan that aims to map, globally, civil society engagement with domestic taxation issues. This scan resulted in both a paper and an online dataset.
The dataset contains information on 171 civil society organizations working on domestic tax issues across 66 countries. It was populated mostly by drawing on IBP’s own partner network and the networks of other international NGOs such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid International and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice. The dataset, based on information drawn from the websites of these organizations, describes broadly for each organization what types of tax issues they work on, what types of activities/work they are engaged in, a description of their approach, memberships in international or regional networks, and their main publications on tax from recent years.
The paper summarizes the key findings from the dataset, and goes a few steps further, drawing on results from an online survey and a series of in-depth interviews with well-established CSOs in this field, to provide a clearer picture of the main characteristics and challenges of CSO work on domestic taxation. In the paper, we identify key entry points for organizations entering this work and the key constraints that they face. It is a snapshot of the current moment in an evolving and expanding field, and by looking at where it is and where it has come from, we look at where it could move, and what needs to change to make that happen.
ATI members can use these publications in shaping their future work with civil society actors. By getting to know better what the field looks like, they can identify potential partners in the countries, regions and policy areas of their interest. And by recognizing how far CSO tax work has come in the past two decades, they can realize how important it is for ATI’s own mission, and support it in ways that address capacity constraints and strengthen the field.
In the coming weeks we will also be releasing the first set of in-depth case studies on how civic actors have engaged in tax policies, covering eight cases of CSO-led tax reform campaigns in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A synthesis of these cases, and short summaries of each, will be available soon. In addition to showing how CSOs can contribute to more effective and equitable taxation, this project will generate lessons for other civic actors interested in engaging with tax reforms.
We hope that ATI members—and many others interested in DRM and related areas—will benefit from these publications, and we invite everyone to engage in discussions and in action on how civil society can help promote more equitable taxation across the world.
This piece was originally posted on the World Bank blog.
Countries around the world have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis by expending trillions of dollars to support their economies and provide relief to their populations. Governments are following expedited procedures to quickly channel funds to relief and recovery programs. Still, a key challenge that countries are facing is ensuring that funds contribute to recovery and reach intended beneficiaries. This is a serious concern as cases of misuse and mismanagement of COVID-19 funds have been reported on every continent.
Supreme audit institutions are key
Fortunately, countries already have organizations such as the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) that are responsible for providing independent assurance on the effective and lawful use of government monies, improvement in public service delivery, and response to disasters. In fact, in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit South and South-East Asia in 2004, the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) issued special standards on disaster-related expenditures. Further, during the Ebola pandemic in 2014, the SAIs of Liberia and Sierra Leone were lauded for their audits of emergency programs, which received extensive coverage in the national and global media.
Civil society’s involvement is necessary
Simultaneously, civil society organizations (CSOs) have also developed innovative methodologies to monitor government expenditures during emergencies and ensure that remedial measures are instituted based on audits conducted by SAIs. For example, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes that hit Mexico and Nepal in the past few years, local CSOs used audit reports issued by their national SAIs to demand that their governments implement reforms in relief programs.
CSOs have now joined calls made by various international bodies and financing agencies for SAIs to be more involved in the monitoring of COVID-19-related funds. These are positive developments but more needs to be done to ensure that audit findings foster the efficient and effective use of public resources for the benefit of citizens.
Effective oversight relies on an ecosystem
In November 2020, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) are releasing a joint report that assesses the adequacy of national oversight systems based on data from 117 countries in the latest Open Budget Survey.
Audit and oversight are an “ecosystem,” consisting of a set of interconnected actors, conditions and processes that need to be in place and function well for the system as a whole to perform effectively. Although SAIs lead the charge, the success of their audits in upholding accountability and enhancing performance in large part depends on the actions of legislators, civil society, the media and ultimately the executive.
Overcoming barriers that limit accountability
Too often, SAIs suffer from deficiencies that are compounded by weak legislative oversight, inadequate responsiveness from executives to reports, and few opportunities for public engagement in the audit and oversight process. These challenges preceded the pandemic and are likely to be exacerbated by the crisis. The IDI-IBP report suggests that all partners of the oversight system need to take action to strengthen accountability. Recommendations include:
- Increasing the mandate, independence and resources of SAIs to audit public funds, including special funds established to channel resources emergency programs,
- Improving the quality of audits by strengthening systems and independent quality checks,
- Enhancing transparency with timely publication of audit reports and tracking executive responses to recommendations,
- Ensuring that legislatures scrutinize SAI reports, including the ones on emergency spending measures, and
- Expanding opportunities for public engagement during the formulation of plans, legislative discussions, and crucially, executive implementation of audit recommendations.
It is very important that governments and other stakeholders use audits to ensure that public funds are expended in a manner that will best save lives and reduce hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
*Martin Aldcroft is Senior Manager of the Strategic Support Unit of the INTOSAI Development Initiative, Vivek Ramkumar is the Senior Director of Policy at the International Budget Partnership and Edward Olowo-Okere is Director of the Global Governance Practice at the World Bank.
* * In 2019, IBP and IDI signed a strategic partnership agreement out of mutual recognition of a shared vision and fruitful synergies while supporting effective engagements between SAIs, legislatives and civil society in order to enhance accountability, audit impact and make a difference to the lives of citizens. This joint report “Harnessing accountability through external public audits: An assessment of national oversight systems” is one product resulting from the partnership.