Most children in the world are not attending school. Millions are unlikely to return. Disruptions to cash, food, health, protection and other programs leave hundreds of millions of children exposed to hunger, violence, sickness and even death. Such risks are magnified where household income has fallen due to job loss, lower earnings and/or fewer remittances.
“If you are not infected, you are affected.” Once commonly used when referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this same phrase can now be applied to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While younger children are not considered at high risk of direct health complications due to the virus, the epidemic is having an indelible and devastating impact on their current and future lives.
COVID-19 has significantly overstretched the capacity of many governments to finance the delivery of essential services to children and their families. Well before the pandemic, many countries were failing to invest sufficient resources in programs that improve the wellbeing of vulnerable populations, including children. With the collapse of government revenue alongside the surge in demand for spending in recent months, fiscal deficits are widening to historic proportions. In this context, governments must ensure that massive budget reallocations and fiscal stimulus packages do not crowd out spending on goods and services that often serve as a lifeline.
Government spending decisions have life and death consequences. A study by The Lancet shows that a modest disruption of health systems and decreased access to food is likely to kill an additional 1.1 million children and 56,000 mothers over the next six months as an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that public finance decisions taken today will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the world’s 2.4 billion children and their caregivers, especially those living in developing countries.
Public oversight of government spending is imperative
At all times, but clearly even more so during periods of crisis, creating opportunities for the public to provide input and monitor how governments allocate public funds is crucial. Yet, we know from the results of the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS 2019) that most countries fall short of this. As the world’s only independent, fact-based, and comparative assessment of public budget accountability — transparency, oversight, and public engagement — the OBS offers insight into how inaccessible government budgets can perpetuate poverty and inequality.
For example, recent research by UNICEF and the International Budget Partnership found that one-third of the budget for immunization programs in 22 countries went unspent during the period from 2009 – 2017, the most recent years for which data was available. Without an open budget process, it is unclear what happened to these resources. While poor budget transparency practices are a major concern for children during normal times, the stakes have never been higher than in 2020.
As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to intensify across the globe, there is a danger that the open budget agenda will reverse and close. Normal budgeting and spending processes have already been upended as emergency packages move forward with limited or no consultation from the public. Parliamentary oversight functions have been significantly reduced in many countries, and lockdowns have created new public finance planning and implementation challenges. The year 2020 is likely to be characterized by the largest public spending deviations in all of history.
Open budgets can be an effective tool in creating a better future for our children
As we cope with this crisis, we also see an opportunity to shape the future — where citizens and government are in active dialogue about the best way to invest scarce resources. Open budgets help align government spending with the needs of vulnerable communities.
Producing comprehensive, useful, and timely budget information enables different groups to assess the impact of government spending and hold governments accountable. In addition, higher credit ratings from improved transparency allow governments to borrow more and cheaper funds, while also attracting greater budget support from donors. This increases the overall pot of resources and potential impact of national budgets on people’s lives.
We’ve seen firsthand how information from the OBS empowers governments and civil society to quickly improve budget openness.
Using results from OBS 2017, UNICEF and IBP supported finance ministries in implementing budget transparency improvement action plans, which catalyzed the publication of more budget information and created new spaces for citizens to contribute to public finance decisions. As a result of these efforts, 15 of the 19 countries in Eastern and Southern African that participated in the latest rounds of the OBS recorded significant improvements in their scores.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we must advocate for and keep the pressure on governments to conduct proper consultations in forming their budgets, carefully document what is being funded, and report on the impact of that funding to hold them accountable.
In recent days, IBP and UNICEF convened a conversation on the transparency of health and education budgets with over 150 participants from government and civil society around the world as well as a discussion with finance ministry officials and civil society organizations from more than a dozen countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to discuss the latest Open Budget Survey results.
One of the key questions ordinary citizens ask about government budgets is “how will it affect me?” This is a particularly important question for people who live in poverty or are part of disadvantaged and marginalized groups. For them, how much tax they pay or what public services they receive can make the difference between deprivation and well-being. This is even more relevant during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, when poverty and inequality worsen, and governments are called on to provide assistance to those most in need.
The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to push between 71 and 100 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2020. Other estimates put the global tally at around half a billion people, and the likelihood of reversing recent gains in reducing global poverty all but certain. Inequality was already on the rise before COVID-19, and the pandemic will likely make the gap bigger, in rich and poor countries alike. The virus magnifies pre-existing differences in economic and social conditions by disproportionately disrupting the livelihoods of those at the lower end of the income scale who cannot self-isolate, have less job security and are more exposed to possible contagion.
Therefore, it is critical to understand how governments are providing the public with adequate information about the impact of budget policies on poverty and inequality to tackle these social ills.
We started looking at this issue in a brief published in early 2019, which used data from the 2017 Open Budget Survey to show that most governments publish very limited information on these topics. The information that is made available, our research showed, is often scattered and incomplete, and reporting back on implementation of relevant budget policies is weaker still.
For people and organizations interested in knowing what policies governments are putting in place to reduce poverty, the annual budget proposal prepared by the executive is the first place to look. However, only less than half of the governments in our survey that publish such a document present information on funds allocated to those policies—and only about a third explain what the numbers actually mean. Among these, here are some interesting examples:
In Thailand, the Budget in Brief document includes details about one of the guiding strategies for the government’s 2019 budget, called “Poverty alleviation, inequality reduction and internal growth creation,” through which resources are allocated to areas such as social protection, health insurance and old age pensions.
Rwanda’s Budget Framework Paper brings together information on government interventions for the “Social Transformation Pillar”—which includes as one of its objectives a “poverty free Rwanda”—ranging from eradicating malnutrition to improving access to health and education services.
New Zealand introduced a new Well-Being Budget approach which links public spending to a series of well-being indicators, focusing government action on priority areas such as addressing child poverty and improving the living conditions of the Māori population.
Monitoring how those funds are spent is even more difficult, with less than a fifth of governments including detailed reporting on pro-poor policies in their year-end reports. In South Africa and Brazil, governments publish detailed reports on the actual spending and performance of various programs related to poverty reduction, even though these are not compiled in an easy-to-access manner.
In order to understand how public spending affects vulnerable groups (i.e. women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, etc.)—and therefore what impact it has on inequality across various dimensions—the budget proposal needs to provide information organized for that specific purpose. Unfortunately, only about a third of the budget proposals analyzed in our survey include such alternative displays of expenditure. The finance ministry in Bangladesh, for example, has regularly published gender budgets and child budgets as part of its budget proposal. And in Ecuador, the medium-term budget programming document includes tables that summarize spending aimed at “closing equity gaps” along various dimensions, including gender, disability, age groups, etc.
In summary, many governments do not seem to consider their budgets’ impacts on poverty and inequality as something worth explaining or reporting on, keeping citizens in the dark. In fact, they do not seem to consider the needs and opinions of vulnerable and marginalized groups as relevant in the budget process at all. Out of 117 countries covered in our survey, just half (56) offer opportunities for citizen engagement during budget formulation. Among these, only six make some effort to include vulnerable groups in those discussions. The situation is even worse during budget execution, with only one government out of 31 making a similar effort. Interesting examples include countries like India and Zimbabwe, where finance ministries hold pre-budget consultations where representatives of disadvantaged groups are invited to participate and present their views. Mexico is the only country that promotes participation of vulnerable and under-represented groups during budget execution, through social audits that involve beneficiaries of social programs targeted to disadvantaged groups. If more countries followed their example, public spending could be better targeted and therefore more effective, a very important plus during crises, when resources are scarce and needs great.
While citizens are frustrated with governments for many reasons, this lack of attention and consideration for the poor and disadvantaged will likely fuel continued dissatisfaction. As successive waves of protests—both before and during the pandemic—have shown, citizens are increasingly and more forcefully demanding that governments chart a new course, one that takes their needs and interests into account, takes concrete steps to address long-standing structural inequalities and builds back trust by reshaping the social contract between governments and citizens. The enormous challenges that governments will face in the remaining stages of the pandemic, and its aftermath, make these demands more pressing, as choices about how to raise and spend public resources become more contentious and directly impact people’s lives.
Public policy processes—and the yearly budget cycle that underpins them—are one of the arenas where a renewal of the social contract can take place. Governments wanting to heed citizens’ calls could do worse than follow some of the positive examples highlighted above, lifting the veil of opacity around the impacts of their budgets.
These positive examples demonstrate how governments can take immediate and concrete steps to provide information on the budget’s impacts on poverty and inequality and involve citizens in formulating and monitoring the implementation of better budget policies that put reducing poverty and inequality at the heart of government action. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect economies and societies, it is fundamental for governments to take these efforts more seriously. The ongoing formulation of their budgets for 2021 could be the perfect opportunity to get started.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend daily life around the world, governments have scrambled to employ all possible fiscal tools to protect the health and livelihoods of their citizens. Ensuring that their response is ‘open’ – transparent, inclusive and accountable – is critical, and we are encouraged from recent results on the Open Budget Survey (OBS) that some governments are prepared to uphold these principles even at this difficult time. Among this geographically and economically diverse group of countries that have demonstrated a consistent commitment to open budgeting practices is Benin, which now ranks as the most transparent country in Francophone Africa on the Open Budget Index (OBI).
A government commitment to improving transparency performance
Under the guidance of economy and finance minister Romuald Wadagni, Benin has introduced reforms in recent years to improve transparency in the formulation and execution of its central budget, with an aim towards incorporating best practices promoted by bodies such as the OECD and IMF. As a result, thanks to the implementation efforts of the ministry’s General Budget Directorate (Direction Générale du Budget), membership in the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) network since 2018, as well as sustained advocacy by civil society organizations such as Social Watch, OBS 2019 showed that Benin’s citizens had access to more budget information than ever before. New details were included in the Executive’s Budget Proposal (EBP), offering a more comprehensive picture of the government’s plans and priorities to legislators and everyday Beninese alike. In particular, significantly more information was provided on individual sources of projected revenue, multi-year estimates of revenue by category, actual outcomes of previous fiscal years with regard to expenditures, revenues, and debt, and non-financial data on results for the budget year. Additionally, a Mid-Year Review was again made available to the public.
Recent reforms spearheaded by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, such as the implementation of program-based budgeting, and the creation of a new State Financial Information System (Système d’informations financières de l’Etat, or SIGFIP) are also notable and should streamline the collection and analysis of budget execution data.
However, in a disappointing shift from OBS 2017, neither In-Year Reports nor an Audit Report were made publicly available, attenuating the impact of these improvements and highlighting the risk of volatility if improved open budgeting practices are not sufficiently institutionalized. In the near term, Benin can continue to strengthen the transparency of its budget process by making these two important documents accessible again, while also providing timely access to all of the supporting materials produced as part of its EBP package, which contain additional information on projected expenditures by functional classification, as well as overall expenditures prior to and beyond the current fiscal year.
Taking steps to enhance opportunities for public participation
Along with recent advances in transparency, Benin has made notable strides in expanding opportunities for citizens to participate in the national budget process. While their OBS participation score (24 out of 100) falls short of reflecting adequate participation opportunities per the standards laid out by the survey, it exceeds the dismal global average (14 out of 100), and based on recent plans, the government of Benin has demonstrated a willingness and ability to continue making improvements. Of note, between 2017 and 2019, the country’s participation score increased by 15 points, which is the 7th-largest improvement among the 115 countries included in these latest two rounds of the survey. This was achieved through the establishment of deliberative meetings with non-state actors during budget formulation, the incorporation of specific participation mechanisms into the public budget calendar, and the review of several line ministries’ budget execution by civil society organizations.
Moving forward, these participatory mechanisms can be further supported by introducing opportunities for the general public to offer input on budget execution to the ministry of economy and finance, ensuring that feedback is solicited from vulnerable and underrepresented parts of the population, and providing specific information to citizens on how their contributions have been used in the budget process. To this end, Beninese authorities have already signaled their commitment to undertake these types of efforts; on May 27, 2020 the Council of Ministers signed a memorandum of understanding with IBP and GIFT to formalize the country’s involvement in a new Fiscal Openness Accelerator (FOA) Project. This initiative seeks to enhance public participation in fiscal policies through the piloting of new mechanisms at various points in the budget process, while also reinforcing complementary fiscal transparency measures. Throughout the life of this two-year project, success stories and lessons learned will be highlighted and shared among the five participating countries: Benin, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. The model of cooperation applied within the FOA Project generates peer pressure, but at the same time provides encouragement and incentives to continue advancing, which helps all of the participants to find innovative ways to improve provision of public services and use peer-tested methods to respond to the needs of communities on the ground.
In sum, with its fourth appearance in the Open Budget Survey, Benin has consolidated advances in budget transparency, and is one of the countries in its region best-placed to offer a sufficient level of fiscal information to its citizens in the near future. In public participation, meanwhile, it has established a foundation for further involvement in the budget cycle by civil society and ordinary Beninese. As in most countries around the world, however, much work remains to be done to ensure that sufficient mechanisms are in place to collect and leverage citizen feedback, so that a greater availability of budget documentation is accompanied by deeper public engagement. In a new era of disruption and uncertainty stemming from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving these goals will be more important than ever before, but they remain key to the development and maintenance of an open, responsive budget process that leaves no one behind.
Alors que la pandémie de la COVID-19 continue de bouleverser la vie quotidienne dans le monde entier, les gouvernements se sont empressés d’utiliser tous les outils fiscaux possibles pour protéger la santé et les moyens de subsistance de leurs citoyens. Il est important de veiller à ce que leur réponse soit « ouverte » — c’est-à-dire transparente, inclusive et responsable — et nous sommes motivés par les résultats récents de l’Enquête sur le budget ouvert (EBO) qui montrent que certains gouvernements sont prêts à respecter ces principes même en ces temps de crise. Parmi ce groupe de pays géographiquement et économiquement diversifiés qui ont fait preuve d’un engagement constant en faveur de pratiques budgétaires ouvertes figure le Bénin, qui est désormais considéré comme le pays le plus transparent d’Afrique francophone selon l’Indice du budget ouvert (IBO).
Un engagement du gouvernement à améliorer les performances en matière de transparence
Sous la direction du ministre de l’économie et des finances, Romuald Wadagni, le Bénin a introduit des réformes ces dernières années pour améliorer la transparence dans la formulation et l’exécution de son budget central, dans le but d’intégrer les meilleures pratiques promues par des organismes tels que l’OCDE et le FMI. En conséquence, grâce aux efforts de mise en œuvre de la Direction Générale du Budget du ministère, à l’adhésion au réseau GIFT (Initiative mondiale pour la transparence budgétaire) depuis 2018, ainsi qu’au plaidoyer soutenu d’organisations de la société civile telles que Social Watch, l’EBO 2019 a montré que les Béninois avaient accès à plus d’informations budgétaires que jamais auparavant. De nouveaux détails ont été inclus dans le Projet de budget de l’exécutif (EBP), offrant une image plus complète des plans et des priorités du gouvernement aux législateurs et à tous les Béninois. En particulier, beaucoup plus d’informations ont été fournies sur les sources individuelles de recettes prévues, les estimations pluriannuelles des recettes par catégorie, les résultats réels des exercices précédents en ce qui concerne les dépenses, les recettes et la dette, et les données non financières sur les résultats de l’exercice budgétaire. En outre, une Revue de milieu d’année a de nouveau été mis à la disposition du public.
Les récentes réformes menées par le ministère de l’économie et des finances, telles que la mise en œuvre de la budgétisation par programme et la création d’un nouveau Système d’informations financières de l’État (SIGFIP), sont également remarquables et devraient rationaliser la collecte et l’analyse des données sur l’exécution du budget.
Toutefois, à la différence de l’EBO 2017, ni les rapports en cours d’exercice ni un rapport d’audit n’ont été rendus publics, ce qui atténue l’impact de ces améliorations et met en évidence le risque de volatilité si les pratiques améliorées de budgétisation ouverte ne sont pas suffisamment institutionnalisées. À court terme, le Bénin peut continuer à renforcer la transparence de son processus budgétaire en rendant à nouveau ces deux documents importants accessibles, tout en offrant un accès en temps opportun à tous les documents produits dans le cadre de son Projet de budget de l’exécutif, qui contiennent des informations supplémentaires sur les dépenses prévues par classification fonctionnelle, ainsi que les dépenses globales avant et après l’exercice en cours.
Prise des mesures pour améliorer les possibilités de participation du public
Parallèlement aux récentes avancées en matière de transparence, le Bénin a fait des progrès notables en élargissant les possibilités pour les citoyens de participer au processus budgétaire national. Bien que leur score de participation à l’EBO (24 sur 100) ne reflète pas les opportunités de participation adéquates selon les normes établies par l’enquête, il dépasse la triste moyenne mondiale (14 sur 100), et sur la base de plans récents, le gouvernement béninois a démontré sa volonté et sa capacité de continuer à apporter des améliorations. Il est à noter qu’entre 2017 et 2019, le score de participation du pays a augmenté de 15 points, soit la 7ème amélioration la plus importante parmi les 115 pays inclus dans ces deux derniers cycles de l’enquête. Cet objectif a été atteint grâce à la mise en place de réunions délibératives avec des acteurs non étatiques lors de la formulation du budget, à l’incorporation de mécanismes de participation spécifiques dans le calendrier du budget public, et à l’examen de l’exécution du budget de plusieurs ministères de tutelle par des organisations de la société civile.
À l’avenir, ces mécanismes participatifs peuvent être davantage soutenus par l’introduction de possibilités pour le grand public d’apporter sa contribution à l’exécution du budget au Ministère de l’économie et des finances, en veillant à ce que des contributions soient sollicitées des parties vulnérables et sous-représentées de la population, et en fournissant des informations spécifiques aux citoyens sur la manière dont leurs contributions ont été utilisées dans le processus budgétaire. A cette fin, les autorités béninoises ont déjà manifesté leur engagement à entreprendre ce type d’efforts; le 27 mai 2020, le Conseil des ministres a signé un protocole d’accord avec l’IBO et GIFT pour formaliser la participation du pays à un nouveau Projet d’accélération de l’ouverture budgétaire (FOA) . Cette initiative vise à renforcer la participation du public aux politiques budgétaires par l’expérimentation de nouveaux mécanismes à différents stades du processus budgétaire, tout en renforçant les mesures complémentaires de transparence fiscale. Tout au long de ce projet de deux ans, les succès et les leçons apprises seront mis en évidence et partagés entre les cinq pays participants : l’Afrique du Sud, le Bénin, le Libéria, le Nigeria et le Sénégal. Le modèle de coopération appliqué dans le cadre du projet FOA génère une pression par les pairs, mais en même temps, il encourage et incite à continuer d’avancer, ce qui permet à tous les participants à trouver des moyens innovants pour améliorer la fourniture de services publics et d’utiliser des méthodes testées par les pairs pour répondre aux besoins des communautés sur le terrain.
En somme, avec sa quatrième apparition dans l’enquête sur le budget ouvert, le Bénin a consolidé ses progrès en matière de transparence budgétaire, et est l’un des pays de sa région les mieux placés pour offrir un niveau suffisant d’information fiscale à ses citoyens dans un avenir proche. En ce qui concerne la participation du public, elle a jeté les bases d’une plus grande implication de la société civile et des Béninois ordinaires dans le cycle budgétaire. Cependant, comme dans la plupart des pays du monde, il reste encore beaucoup à faire pour s’assurer que des mécanismes suffisants sont en place pour collecter et exploiter les contributions des citoyens, de sorte qu’une plus grande disponibilité de la documentation budgétaire s’accompagne d’une implication plus profonde du public. Dans une nouvelle ère de perturbations et d’incertitudes liées aux effets de la pandémie de la COVID-19, il sera plus important que jamais d’atteindre ces objectifs, mais ils restent essentiels à l’élaboration et au maintien d’un processus budgétaire ouvert et réactif et qui requiert la contribution de tous.
Indonesia has made steady advances in open budgeting in recent years, as demonstrated by the International Budget Partnership (IBP)’s biennial Open Budget Survey (OBS), where the country now scores 70 out of 100 on budget transparency.
In a recent interview with IBP’s Cosette Highfill, IGA Krisna Murti RS — the most recent OBS government reviewer for Indonesia — reflected on how the government used the OBS and input from civil society to help spur change.
Cosette: How has the government used the OBS results to encourage open budgeting?
IGA Krisna Murti RS: TheOBS is very strong for improving budget transparency. Actually, we do not focus on the score, but on using the results to get leadership support to increase the transparency of the budget. For example, the Indonesian finance minister gave a speech at the 2017 OBS launch via video which demonstrated we are paying attention to budget transparency.
When preparing budget proposals, the directorate general of the budget considers what information should be made public. We always evaluate and compare this with the results of past surveys. For example, if the previous OBS found that debt was not available in the financial memorandum, we will work to include debt information in this year’s financial memorandum.
There are other evaluationsof budget transparency in Indonesia, such as PEFA and the IMF’s Fiscal Transparency Evaluation. The ministry of finance is also involved in these assessments. But the value of the OBS is that it is widely known to the public, it can be compared with other countries, and it is based on publicly available evidence.
Cosette: In 2016, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) invited Indonesia’s ministry of finance to meet with the Mexican government and PEMNA in Korea to share information. The following year, Indonesia launched a budget portal, enabling greater access to budget data. Why 2016?
IGA Krisna:Actually, 2016 was a special year for Indonesia on the budget transparency initiative. Starting with the GIFT invitation to Indonesia’s ministry of finance in 2016, we expanded our understanding that transparency is important for improving the quality of budgeting, and that open budgeting is vital for improving the quality of people’s lives in Indonesia.
When attending the GIFT meeting in Mexico, we ventured to host the next meeting, which GIFT welcomed and then occurred in 2017. We took advantage of this opportunity to launch another tool on the portal – data in spatial formats – which we also showed when invited by PEMNA in Korea. Participation in these meetings gave us insight into increasing budget transparency.
Who are OBS government reviewers?
IBP invites government representatives of the countries assessed by the OBS to review the draft results and provide comments. In the most recent OBS round, officials from 94 governments accepted IBP’s invitation and reviewed their country’s survey questionnaire, a document that includes responses on more than 200 indicators.
Cosette: How does the ministry spread awareness of the importance of transparency within the government?
IGA Krisna: The ministry of finance can only encourage other ministries to provide data – as the ministry of finance has done for the data portal. We also recommend providing a wider range of data for local budgets so that the public knows about the activities carried out by local governments.
Some ministries also have action plans with targets to be achieved at the national level, such as the publication of education and health budgets in the data portal or signing a memorandum among ministries on commitments to publish budget data.
Cosette: Has the OBS research partner Seknas Fitra also joined your meetings to discuss budget transparency?
IGA Krisna: Yes. We, assisted by Seknas Fitra, are trying to show the public that we have tried to publish data through the portal in a format that is easily understood. We always say that every ministry should have the same mission – budget transparency.
Cosette: Can you speak more about Open Data Day, Budget Goes to Campus and the Budget Olympics, which encourage public input into the formulation and implementation of the national budget?
IGA Krisna: This is a very pleasant part of carrying out budget transparency activities. We learned to communicate and discuss with the public about the budgeting process, even though we are not teachers or publicists. We shared knowledge and opened up opportunities to talk about the budget. The Budget Goes to Campus event is to communicate with students and lecturers, and the Open Data Day and Budget Olympics are competitions around the public’s ability to use budget information. All have the same objective: public understanding of the budgeting process in Indonesia. When people understand the budget process, they can provide information to the government on their needs. We highly appreciate public input and even criticism of the government, but it is more useful if criticism or input to the government is based on knowledge and is in a form we can use.
In one year, we held events in several universities and at around 15 senior high schools. We plan to continue these activities every year and hope to reach many other schools and universities. Especially this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we held these activities online. We are hopeful that the dissemination of budget information online can reach a greater audience.