A growing number of citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) are trying to influence government budgets. (Read more here).  But the debate about how to assess the value of such CSO interventions is also heating up. Donors are under pressure to show impact. They are transmitting this pressure to CSOs by asking them to provide evidence of impact.

But how should we define impact? Are changes in government behavior impact? Or should we be more demanding and only accept actual changes in the living conditions of the poor and vulnerable as impact?

Why bother with budgets in the first place?

There are at least two important reasons why government budgets, and the processes by which they are formulated, deserve attention.

  • Government budgets can contribute to improving the social conditions of the poor and vulnerable.
  • Budget processes form part of the basic democratic transaction between government and the people. Governments should therefore release key information and afford the public the opportunity to participate meaningfully.

Why does CSO budget work matter?

Recent case studies provide evidence that CSOs do sometimes contribute to:

  • Improving the formulation and execution of government budgets  and
  • Activating the public’s rights to participation in, and information about, the government budget process.

Go to the IBP or IDS websites to see some examples.

How should we evaluate efforts by citizens and CSOs to improve budgets?

Should CSO efforts to influence budgets be judged by the effect that they have on government spending, participation and access to information? Is this enough? What if such budget changes don’t end up changing the day to day lives of the poor and marginalized?

Or should they be judged by the impact that they have on the social conditions of the poor and the level of democracy in a given country?

Don’t socio-economic changes take too long to be of use in evaluating CSO performance? Changing the budget spent on, say, primary education can be done in a year or two, but changing numeracy and literacy rates may take much longer. It may not be helpful to have to wait that long before deciding if a CSO project is working or not.

Isn’t it unfair to expect CSOs to show impact on socio-economic indicators? Aren’t there too many other factors and actors that play a role in the link between budgets and socio-economic changes? Wouldn’t it be presumptuous for CSOs to take credit when budget changes do translate into socio-economic changes?