“We are all in this together”—or, at least that was the message early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus does not discriminate and anyone can catch it. However, it did not take long for it to become obvious that this was far from reality in a story that is still unfolding.
“Shockingly skewed illness and mortality rates have tracked and exposed racial and class divides. In some of the world’s richest nations, health care systems have proven grossly inadequate, and race, gender, religious and class discrimination have skewed access to housing, food, education and technology in ways that have yielded radically different outcomes. Gaping North-South disparities have been exposed. And many national and local governments, constrained by austerity policies, lack the will, resources and administrative capacities to step in effectively.” Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, July 2, 2020
From the outset, international organizations—including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank—donors and regional entities, began to highlight that, although the virus was reaching every corner of the globe and no one would be safe until everyone was safe, the pandemic was impacting individuals and communities very differently. Indeed, the novel coronavirus is laying bare pre-existing inequalities and intensifying the gross social injustices of extreme poverty. A more inclusive recovery is needed. It must not be business as usual.
Civil society organizations around the world working on budget issues have geared up to advocate for more transparent and just responses and to address the very unequal impact of COVID-19 on different groups of people. Building on their previous work, these organizations are taking a variety of approaches, but they are all highlighting the fact that budgets can (and should) play a critical role in reducing inequality and discrimination. Budgets are, after all, the most important economic policy document that governments can use to protect people´s rights and provide services.
What tactics are groups around the world using to expose inequalities and, in some cases, discrimination in budgetary responses to COVID-19? In many instances, they are exposing how the social and economic crisis induced by the pandemic is impacting vulnerable groups the most and how emergency measures and budget adjustments could exacerbate existing inequalities or discriminatory practices—if not by intent, then in effect.
Influencing public debate
Some international organizations and coalitions—including the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)—are seeking to influence public debate by calling for human rights to be at the core of government responses and explaining how they provide a framework for exposing and redressing discriminatory policies, including budgetary ones. Also guided by human rights obligations, the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) in Argentina has published an overview of the measures implemented by the government in the wake of COVID-19, highlighting the need for greater budget transparency and participation to ensure more equitable fiscal policies. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has pointed out, both in times of relative prosperity and recession, states’ “fiscal policy choices help determine whether someone’s race or ethnicity, gender, income, place of birth or ZIP code affects their ability to achieve their potential and live unburdened by the hardships that poverty, racism, discrimination and bias cause.” The center emphasizes that this challenge is brought into even sharper focus in the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previously, the ADVA Center in Israel had called for budgets to be “engines of equality,” not just of growth, since “growth in and of itself cannot guarantee an improved standard of living for all segments of the population or all areas of the country, and certainly cannot guarantee that the enlarged pie will benefit all.” More recently, the ADVA Center highlighted the cost of the coronavirus and its impact on the lowest income earners and most vulnerable populations. Likewise, Guatemala’s Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) analyzed budget execution, raising concerns about the small portion of resources directed to children and adolescents. It also exposed the limitations of budget information when attempting to conduct comprehensive analyses of government spending. Meanwhile, a joint initiative by a coalition of national NGOs in Latin America called on governments to review and eventually eliminate tax privileges, given their tendency to increase inequality.
On the other side of the world, in Kenya, IBP’s country office has undertaken an analysis of tax policy responses, raising concern about the lack of scrutiny and the less-than-progressive characteristics of some of them.
Interacting with legislatures
As governments continue to adjust their budgets to respond to the coronavirus crisis, some organizations at the national level are engaging with legislatures to document how budgetary adjustments can lead to inequality and discrimination. The Budget Justice Coalition in South Africa submitted a proposal to the Select and Standing Committees on Finance in connection to the government’s supplementary budget for 2020, highlighting the risk of a “regression of socio-economic rights,” as well as the failure to respond adequately to violence against women and children. For its part, the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (INESC) in Brazil is working to expose the government’s limited budget execution for policies and programs that protect women against violence, even though more resources were allocated to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights as a result of the pandemic.
Engaging with the judiciary
Other groups are engaging with the judiciary to ensure more equal and non-discriminatory measures in response to COVID-19. In Colombia, for example, Dejusticia has turned to the Constitutional Court to ensure that the Emergency Fund for the Pandemic prioritizes health coverage for the most vulnerable groups, including people living in poverty, refugees and those with disabilities. Argentinas’ ACIJ worked to get access to the internet and computers for children living in poor neighborhoods (villas) in Buenos Aires province, ensuring their right to education as classes moved online. This was achieved through a precautionary measure imposed by a local court that ordered the government to provide access and equipment. Of course, as the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) in India and Policy Forum in Tanzania have reported, disparities in access to the internet, technology and even electricity are not readily fixable by court order, presenting ongoing challenges to remote education during the pandemic.
Involving directly affected persons
Other organizations are focusing their attention on engaging with those directly affected to ensure their voices are heard when governments identify priorities, as well as to help them monitor the provision of services. IBP South Africa, for example, is working with partners in informal settlements and health professionals to identify and remedy inadequate hygiene. The close-quarter living and shared water and toilets common in informal settlements put residents at increased risk from COVID-19, but was being inadequately addressed by the state.
Meanwhile, in Senegal, IBP partner the Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities (FSAPH) successfully advocated for inclusion of people with disabilities, who often are unable to access basic public services, in the registry for poor people. The Ministry of Community Development now has been instructed to expand the budget for COVID-19 services to include more people with disabilities.
Harnessing new technology also is effective in improving the equity of the COVID-19 response. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), an organization focused on caste-based discrimination in India, developed an app to monitor the implementation of emergency measures. It also joined a dozen other organizations in the country to call on national authorities to ensure that the response to COVID-19 is sensitive to those in most need. The organizations suggested specific policy options.
The approaches of these civil society organizations form a common thread: They reveal the myriad ways the pandemic has exposed pre-existing inequalities and discriminatory practices by drawing attention to concrete examples. The work done by CSOs to analyze how budgets impact vulnerable groups will help ensure a more just response and hopefully a profound re-think of public finance, thus moving it toward a more people-centered framework. The future must be one in which no one is left behind and decisions related to budgets and fiscal policies are rooted in the principles of equality and non-discrimination.