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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.
Importantly, a fruitful dialogue between Benin’s ministry of finance and civil society organizations, including Social Watch and others, has paved the way for more open and inclusive budget processes. Local organizations report to the ministry on the implementation of public spending and service delivery, a collaboration which ultimately improves outcomes (see Evaluation par la société civile d’un indicateur lié à l’offre de de services publics et impact sur l’allocation de ressources budgétaires par le gouvernement.)
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.”