In 1985 Disha, a civil society organization (CSO) in Gujarat, India, wanted the government to address several issues affecting poor people living in tribal areas, including land rights and support for Tendu leaf-plucker women. Although Disha was well-equipped with economic and moral arguments and were seasoned advocates, they realized that without hard data on how the national and local governments were currently using, and planning to use, public funds to support tribal development, it would be nearly impossible to convince the government to address these issues. So Disha began to gather this data and use it to advocate for stronger policies for poor, tribal people. Thus was born one of the first “budget groups” – CSOs that analyze government budgets and undertake advocacy to influence these budgets in order to improve policies, service delivery, and outcomes, particularly for the poor.
Why Civil Society Budget Work?
Public budgets are the blueprints for how the government will raise and spend the public funds needed for the policies and programs that will translate its priorities into action. Though the budget directly impacts all of a nation’s people — especially the poor and most vulnerable — traditionally the public has been shut out of the processes through which these critical taxing and spending decisions are made. In fact, there was a belief among many public finance “experts” that encouraging the public to participate in budget decisions would lead to inefficiency and irresponsible decisions.
This attitude has begun to shift over the past decade or so, influenced in large part by increasing efforts by civil society organizations to engage in government budget processes in order to affect policy choices and make public budgeting more open and accountable. More and more, it is being recognized that when ordinary people are involved in managing the public’s money, you get stronger decisions, less corruption and mismanagement, and better outcomes for a country’s people, especially the poor. In other words: Open Budgets. Transform Lives.
Two things are necessary for this to happen. First, governments need to provide the public with information and opportunities to participate in the budget process. Second, civil society and the public need the skills to be able to understand and use this information to effectively advocate for better policies.
Based on this belief, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) was formed in 1997 within the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to collaborate with civil society to undertake budget analysis and advocacy in order to improve governance and reduce poverty. The IBP invests in civil society’s capacity to understand and analyze government budgets, participate in budget processes, and engage in evidence-based advocacy. The work of the IBP is fueled by these core assumptions:
- Public understanding and engagement are necessary if public budgeting processes are to be reformed and budgets are to be more responsive.
- Successful CSO engagement requires that citizens have access to information and opportunities to participate in the formulation, implementation, and oversight of public policies and budgets.
- Government has the primary duty to provide the public with timely, comprehensive information on the budget and opportunities for participation in budget processes.
- Government has the primary duty to ensure that the maximum available public funds are devoted to reductions in poverty.
- Public funds should be spent on public priorities, especially those of the poor and marginalized.
Where Is Civil Society Budget Work at Today?
The work of the IBP and its civil society partners has started to pay off:
- Civil society budget work has grown from CSOs in a handful of countries in the late 1990s to hundreds of organizations in over 100 countries actively involved in government budget processes today.
- There is growing evidence that civil society participation in public budgeting can have a significant impact on budget process, policies, and outcomes.
- Civil society organizations in several countries have strengthened the ability of legislatures and supreme audit institutions to play their role as indirect representatives of the people and important oversight institutions by providing technical assistance, important information on the needs and priorities of the public, and independent, objective budget analyses.
And the progress is real – civil society engagement in public budgeting is now widely acknowledged and promoted within civil society organizations and by donors, and an increasing number of governments are committed to transparent, accountable, and effective budget processes.
Still, the problem of closed budgeting persists in far too many countries around the world, and the use of public resources too frequently does not prioritize the needs of poor and vulnerable communities, those that rely most on public support.
Next Steps for the IBP and its Partners
It is within this context that the IBP has deepened and broadened its collaboration with civil society budget groups to engage in initiatives and efforts that will contribute to:
- greater budget transparency and opportunities for engagement in budget processes;
- improvements in the quality of government budget institutions;
- more progressive budget policies and inclusive budget processes;
- larger allocations for critical social programs; and
- more effective and efficient use of scarce budgetary resources.
The IBP brings to these efforts the working relationships that it has developed with organizations in more than 100 countries. Most of these organizations are members of a vibrant international network that has helped build the field by fostering collaboration across international boundaries, sharing the lessons learned from the work, and pioneering new approaches to citizen oversight of government operations. Through these relationships and its core programs the IBP will pursue the goals listed above with the ultimate aim of systemically improving levels of governance and reducing poverty.
Impact of Civil Society Budget Work
In Mexico, civil society budget work has led to substantial increases in federal funding to eliminate rural maternal mortality.
In South Africa, civil society work with Parliament effectively pressured the government to increase spending on child support for poor and low-income families, the core grant in the social safety net. The work has resulted in policies to expand eligibility and increase the size of the grant and improvements in outreach so that 80 percent of the children eligible for the grant now receive it.
In India and Uganda, civil society monitoring of district-level or local-level budgets has led to substantial reductions in corruption associated with public service provision in health and education.
In Argentina and Kenya, civil society engagement in the budget has improved the effective engagement of the legislature and supreme audit institution in budget oversight.
In Pakistan, civil society has used budget monitoring tools to track the rate and quality of spending related to earthquake reconstruction relief funds. This work has drawn attention to significant problems in the management of reconstruction funds and the implementation of reconstruction plans.