FSAPH and the fight for social inclusion of people with disabilities

FSAPH and the fight for social inclusion of people with disabilities

 

For many years disability has, in theory, been a policy priority of the Senegalese government. Officially, people with disabilities (PWDs) represent 5.9% of the Senegalese population.1 This data, however, is contested and many argue that it is closer to 15.5% of the total population.  In 2010, the Social Orientation Act (SOA)2 was adopted to protect the rights of PWDs and remove barriers to their empowerment and inclusion. The Equal Opportunity Card (EOC) program was introduced to provide PWDs free health care, transportation, employment and other assistance. However, officials were failing to provide the cards to eligible people, and even those who did receive a card were having trouble accessing benefits. Out of 50,000 people who had registered for a card, only 19 230 were enrolled in the Universal Health Coverage plan and even those who were enrolled experienced gaps in services as the state regularly failed to pay the insurer.

 

In just over a year, the Senegalese Federation of Associations of People with Disabilities (FSAPH), with our support, facilitated access to basic services and benefits for more than 100,000 of its members. FSAPH helped 15,000 people get access to EOC cards and helped increase the number of PWDs enrolled in the Universal Health Coverage program from 38.5% in 2019 to 42% in 2020. They also ensured that 100,000 of its members received COVID relief. Importantly, they influenced key Senegalese government ministries to commit to improving three programs focused on facilitating employment, vocational training, and social protection opportunities for PWDs. The process of fighting for and achieving these changes have transformed how government sees and listens to people with disabilities and have lasting impact on how PWDs see themselves and their place in Senegal.

 

Background

 

FSAPH was founded in 1997 to guide national and state governments in creating opportunities for PWDs. It is a nationwide, independent umbrella organization—with a secretariat and 29 branches and regional representations— that brings together PWD associations of all disability types.

 

Thanks to FSAPH’s advocacy over more than two decades, the government first introduced the Equal Opportunity Card (EOC) program in 2017 and included card holders in social safety net programs, such as the Family Allowance Program3 and Universal Health Coverage plan. However, they were struggling to get the program properly implemented so that it could lead to tangible improvements in the lives of its members. It faces two key challenges. Firstly, there is an insufficient production of cards – with no cards at all being produced in 2018. Secondly, even with a card, accessing the benefits is difficult.  Both challenges were related to budget execution (the budget had been cut by two-thirds for instance in 2018) and FSAPH lacked knowledge of the budget system or how to influence it. After discussions with FSAPH’s leadership, we stepped in to build their ability to add effective budget advocacy as an additional tool to bring about the change they sought.

 

FSAPH’s path to results

 

Joining of technical and political power

 

We and our technical partners— OSIDEA4 and ONG 3D5 — helped FSAPH build budget analysis skills and navigate political institutions to identify and address the resource challenges that were keeping the EOC program from being properly implemented and to open the door for PWDs to have a say in policies that impact them.

 

FSAPH pursued a two-pronged strategy to navigate the ecosystem of actors, roles, institutions and contexts that influence budget decisions affecting their community. First, they worked hard to reinforce and improve already strong ties with members of parliament and local elected officials. Second, they leveraged those relationships to monitor how the relevant programs were being implemented and to gain insights on shortcomings. The nationwide membership structure of FSAPH has provided a distinct organizing advantage. They have a deep and wide enough base to mobilize members, engage officials and influence decisions that are being made at all levels of government. IBP, ONG 3D and OSIDEA have also lent our political know-how to help FSAPH navigate these channels and sometimes contradictory positions from officials at different levels.

 

Strengthening FSAPH’s “collectiveness”

 

It quickly became apparent that a crucial first step to effective campaigning was improving FSAPH’s internal governance. FSAPH was struggling with inclusion and representation of women and different disability types in its governing structures. Regional branches felt isolated due to lack of communication from the leadership.

 

IBP facilitated a series of workshops with FSAPH’s members to help improve their governance, communication and cohesion. They agreed to a more robust downward and upward accountability chain for the program management committee; weekly email chains to regional structures to keep them informed of plans and progress; and a commitment to have at least one woman and different disability types represented in their regional COVID-monitoring and evaluation committees.

 

FSAPH also identified strong regional groups that could drive some of the work forward. The Pikine and Ziguinchor groups quickly stood out as active and competent. FSAPH leadership turned to these two groups for strategic planning of advocacy actions, which reinforced their sense of inclusion, ownership and purpose.

 

Building budget and political advocacy skills

 

While FSAPH had been at the forefront of disability inclusion advocacy for a number of years, they lacked the budget knowledge to address why services were not flowing to their members and were therefore not yet seen as a credible partner by government. To get there, we and our technical partners supported FSAPH through workshops and activities that built their budget understanding and empowered them to know what they were looking for, whom to address, what to expect and what to ask for. We trained 110 of their members from various regional groups to analyze budgets and advocate for better allocation of resources in the budget.

 

 

The budget training allowed us to better understand budget processes. Since then, we have improved relations between local officials and our regional FSAPH structure.”

 

– Pikine training participant

 

Generating and leveraging data to make demands

 

In 2019, FSAPH collected information from the EOC implementing agency to understand why so many people with disabilities had not been issued a card and why those who had were struggling to access benefits. The data showed that only about a third of EOC recipients were enrolled in the Universal Health Coverage plan. Those enrolled were struggling to get consistent care because the government was not paying the insurer. FSAPH brought this evidence— which government did not have and could not gather— to meetings IBP and technical partners set up with key institutions and agencies.6 When they brought this issue to the attention of officials, they helped uncover the fact that the failure to deliver on the promise of the EOC program was not due to reluctance on the part of decisionmakers. Rather it was due to several impediments: 1) the government was not allocating sufficient funds for the EOC program; 2) the government was behind in paying the Universal Health Coverage plan premiums; 3) officials implementing the Universal Health Coverage plan were not adequately targeting PWDs; and 4) other key ministries were not incorporating and prioritizing PWDs in their budgets.

 

COVID-19 was particularly challenging for people with disabilities and threatened FSAPH’s ability to organize and mobilize. Nevertheless, they took the data analysis skills and relationships we helped them forge to pivot quickly to get their members relief. In March 2020, FSAPH set up a COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation initiative and used its regional structures to collect data from 820 PWDs. The data revealed that most respondents had not received COVID-19 assistance because PWDs were not included in the national registry of poor households that was used to target recipients. FSAPH wrote a letter to the Director of Community Development and Social Equity. As a result, the Ministry of Community Development and Social Equity decided to include FSAPH members in formal national and local COVID technical committees. They also provided COVID-related food and utility assistance to 100,000 PWDs.

 

 

My participation in this [norms and discourse on disability] study has been life-changing… Seeing my contribution is valued has helped me regain my confidence. I am now more determined to advocate for our rights.

 

– Study peer-researcher from the regional research team of Ziguinchor

 

 

Shifting narratives on disability

 

FSAPH broadcasts public service announcements highlighting the exclusion of PWDs.

We helped FSAPH partner with the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar who provided them technical support to undertake a participatory study on norms and discourse on disabilities. FSAPH leaders invited 65 of its trained regional members to participate as peer-researchers in the study.

 

1,025 PWDs responded to the study’s quantitative survey, which documented for the first time the stigmatizing practices PWDs face at the family, community and institutional levels.7 It also generated rich qualitative insights from life stories and testimonies respondents shared about the various ways they have felt marginalized.

 

FSAPH used the study’s insights, and the data on budget challenges that were keeping programs for PWDs underfunded (for instance arrears in government payments to the Universal Health Coverage plan and poor targeting of PWDs in that plan), to shift the narrative and raise public awareness about the need to better support PWDs. FSAPH spearheaded traditional and digital media campaigns to shed light on the lived experience of PWDs and urge the public and government to be more responsive to their needs. For the first time, PWDs occupied media spaces and broadcast their data on prime-time television, urging viewers to hold government accountable and officials to reach out to them for collaboration. The most popular television channel in Senegal, RTS, broadcast public service announcements highlighting the exclusion of PWDs in 7 official languages. FSAPH held a press conference that was well attended by news channels and high-profile journalists. Three of the most popular national radio stations (RFM, RSI and SUD FM) hosted shows with FSAPH members, which were retransmitted by local radio channels.

 

 

PWDs around the country are facing barriers to unemployment and employability. Government must put in place a global strategy for their recruitment in the public sector.

 

– Recommendation from the study

 

 

Formal and informal engagement and participation

 

Yatma Fall, FSAPH President, during a press briefing on the effective implementation of the Social Orientation Act.

We helped FSAPH leverage informal and formal opportunities to engage government officials. FSAPH established regular contact with: the Director of Social Action in the Ministry of Health and Social Action; the Director of Social Equity in the Ministry of Community Development; the Director of Community Development in the Ministry of Community Development; the Director of Employment; and the Minister of Urban Planning, Housing and Public Hygiene.

 

Incrementally, they leveraged these contacts to get more formal commitments. The Ministry of Community Development, Social and Territorial Equity invited them to help draft the Program for Economic and Social Inclusion (PAIES), which seeks to ensure the effective inclusion of PWDs.8 The Director of Employment9 invited FSAPH to discuss PWD access to employment and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them for long-term collaboration. The Director of Development and Social Equity committed to collaborate with FSAPH to better integrate PWDs in its programs. The Minister of Community Development recognized that PWDs are a priority group and made assurances that they would be included in social programs implemented by the ministry.

 

Working with oversight institutions

 

FSAPH has strengthened its watchdog role by leveraging the power of the National Assembly’s “checks and balances” to bring government to account. Towards the end of 2019, we supported FSAPH in the organization of an advocacy dinner with members of the National Assembly Health and Social Affairs Commission. On that occasion, FSAPH gave a memorandum to parliamentarians to inform their interventions during the budget preparation debates. Several parliamentarians, mostly female, including the president of the Health Commission, went on to question the Ministry of Health on why his ministry had not issued EOCs and called for an evaluation of the Social Orientation Law. FSAPH continued to engage with parliamentarians in 2020, who remained important allies to make sure government delivered on its various commitments, for instance putting pressure on the Ministry of Health to continue the production of EOCs and improve the enrollment of PWDs in the Universal Health Coverage Program.

 

FSAPH’s main successes to date

 

Parliamentarians receiving FSAPH’s memorandum during a 2019 advocacy dinner.

Thanks to FSAPH’s efforts, 100,000 PWD households who were initially excluded from the national resilience program have now received COVID relief kits. State institutions such as the Ministry of Health and Social Action, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Culture have distributed relief kits to FSAPH or dedicated a quota of their sectoral resilience funds to PWDs.

 

Our collective advocacy helped 15,000 people access EOC cards in 2019 and 2020 and increased the number of PWDs enrolled in the Universal Health Coverage program from 38.5% in 2019 to 42% in 2020.

 

FSAPH also secured important commitments from government institutions to expand opportunities for PWDs. The Director of Employment signed an agreement with FSAPH to ensure a 5% quota for PWDs to receive internship placement through the State-Employers’ Agreement (CNEE). FSAPH also secured an allocation for the Vocational and Technical Training Fund (3FPT) to include training for prosthetic specialists. Many national and regional orthopedic centers lacked trained specialists who could provide quality prosthetic care to PWDs, so this fund will help fill this gap. The Ministry of Community Development has reaffirmed its commitment to PWD inclusion as it finalizes the Support Program for the Social and Economic Inclusion of PWDs (PAIES) with contributions from FSAPH.

 

Conclusion

 

With our help, FSAPH has improved its governance and forged valuable relationships with government decisionmakers. By building their budget literacy and gathering data they are now able to support their demands with facts. They have also been empowered as individuals and as a force to be reckoned with in Senegal. They have built their credibility as a valuable source of information and partner for government and the media and have shifted public narratives and perceptions about PWDs and their needs.

 

Moving forward, FSAPH will focus on ensuring the commitments they obtained in 2020 are delivered. In particular, they will seek increases in budget allocations to the EOC program and access by PWDs, especially women with disabilities, to effective health services under the Universal Health Coverage plan. They will also continue to strengthen ties with government reformers that can influence budget outcomes to advance disability-sensitive policies and budgets.

 

 

Footnotes

 

The missing link: Indonesian fishers fill the gap to simplify the subsidized fuel program

The missing link: Indonesian fishers fill the gap to simplify the subsidized fuel program

Sulaiman is typical of many fisherfolk making a living using a traditional sailboat. When his boat was damaged by a wave eight months ago, Sulaiman faced tough decisions about his livelihood.

Along with 150 other fisherfolk from Pari Island in Indonesia, Sulaiman struggles to obtain subsidized diesel fuel at the price of 5,500 rupiahs (U$0.38). At present, he has to purchase the fuel at a market price of 8,000 rupiahs (US$0.55). Last year, the government set a quota of 1.7 million kiloliters of subsidized diesel for fishing vessels with a capacity under 30 GT, but only 530,000 kiloliters of the quota were distributed. 

When trying to access subsidized fuel, fisherfolk are generally met with government red tape. They are required to obtain a recommendation letter from the municipal government or port authority. The letter must be renewed monthly and requires several difficult-to-obtain documents, such as a boat license or registration.


Grassroots collaboration for change

A coalition called Kartu Pelaku Usaha Kelautan dan Perikanan (KUSUKA) is focused on the challenges facing small-scale fisherfolk. The coalition includes several NGOs, the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union (KNTI), the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency National Secretariat, the Society Initiative, urban development organization Our City, and International Budget Partnership Indonesia. Together they conducted a survey of 5,292 members in April and May 2021 to learn about access to subsidized fuel and why the government quota was not met.  

“A total of 83 percent of respondents purchased the fuel at the market price and only 5 percent at the subsidized price,” KNTI Managing Director Dani Setiawan said on July 7, 2021. He was speaking at a public discussion organized by KUSUKA to strengthen the government’s protection of small-scale fisherfolk amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Administrative requirements and the distance to travel to the fuel stations are other obstacles to accessing the fuel, according to survey respondents. At least 93 percent of those interviewed had never submitted documents to become eligible for fuel subsidies, while 38 percent admitted they did not have the required documents at all. A further 22 percent said they could not find a station nearby selling subsidized fuel.  

Based on its survey findings, KUSUKA recommended that the government visit the fisher villages to explain the procedure of securing subsidized fuels. More importantly, the coalition recommended the government simplify the requirements for accessing the subsidies. 

Cutting the red tape, building more stations

The government received the survey results and appears to be listening to the recommendations KUSUKA laid out. The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry said it was committed to improving the distribution of subsidized fuel to small-scale fishers. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Sakti Wahyu Trenggono publicly conveyed his concern about subsidized fuel distribution for traditional fishing communities. 

“The ministry, together with the Downstream Oil and Gas Regulatory Agency, Pertamina, and local governments have simplified regulation to distribute the subsidized fuel, revitalized fishermen filling stations, and digitized the recommendation process,” Trenggono said. 

KUSUKA membership cards

The issuing of KUSUKA memberships cards is one way the ministry has simplified the process for fisherfolk to obtain subsidized fuel. According to the ministry, there were at least 1.7 million fishers or enterprises eligible for KUSUKA cards. However, only 895,256 fishers and 5,680 small enterprises were registered. 

The ministry has acknowledged that it did not have enough staff present at the community level to fill the registration gaps for KUSUKA cards and welcomed assistance from KNTI in making up the shortfall. “Indonesia is a vast country. If KNTI is willing to cooperate, we welcome the partnership in registering the members of KNTI,” stated Budi Sulistiyo, a staff member from the ministry. The ministry is also preparing an online application to facilitate registration. 

In order to streamline the registration process, the ministry will need to overcome existing regulations that require fishers to produce a recommendation letter to qualify for fuel subsidies. This will mean reforming the 2012 Presidential Regulation No. 15 on Subsidized Fuel Distribution, which mandates the registration letter. Sulistiyo suggested a revision of the regulation to permit KUSUKA cards as a replacement for the recommendation letter. 

The Supreme Audit Institution has been yet another ally in KNTI’s efforts to streamline the registration process. It too recognized the need to overcome the Presidential Regulation. “The bottleneck is still there. The Presidential Regulation specifically mentions a recommendation letter,” said Erwansyah Fuad, the head of Subaditoriat IV.B.1 of the agency. The Supreme Audit Agency supports the use of the KUSUKA card as a verification tool for fisherfolk to access fuel at a subsidized price. 

Thanks to our partners efforts, the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry has decided to pilot five projects where it will allow the use of the KUSUKA cards to facilitate fisherfolks’ access to subsidized fuel. The ministry has invited KNTI and the Supreme Audit Agency to supervise these projects, and also noted that the coalition’s survey data helped them decide where to pilot the projects. 

Prosperity for fishing communities  

Indonesia’s fishery sector creates jobs for 13 million to 15 million people. As the country works towards a post-pandemic economic recovery, protecting the income of small-scale fisherfolk is paramount. Overcoming the challenges facing small-scale fisherfolk requires more collaboration between civil society organizations and the government. By working together and creating new alliances, our partners have been able to pinpoint the data and common-sense reforms that can facilitate assistance and spur economic viability for millions of fisherfolk.

Budget Trailblazers: Rommel Rodríguez and Jaime López

Budget Trailblazers: Rommel Rodríguez and Jaime López

Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Rommel RodríguezMacroeconomics and Development Area Coordinator, and Jaime LópezTransparency Researcher, both from the National Development Foundation (FUNDE) in El Salvador.

Q: What is FUNDE’s area of work and main aims? 

A:  FUNDE has four areas of work: Macroeconomics and Development, Transparency, Citizen Security, and Territorial (urban, rural, and environmental) Development. Our mission is to work for a fair, open, supportive, and sustainable society. Our vision is to generate innovative thinking, proposals, and actions in the field of development. In 2008, we started to work more on fiscal affairs from a macroeconomic lens, and more recently we began to focus more of our work on engaging the broader public in how budgetary matters impact their lives. 

Q: Describe the partnership between FUNDE and the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI)? 

A: In general, it is a relationship based on mutual consultation. There have also been opportunities to collectively host events or advocacy activities. For example, FUNDE, ICEFI and other organizations recently made a joint statement on the possible loan agreement between the IMF and El Salvador and the use of bitcoin in the country. We also work together to co-lead the Citizen Oversight Committee of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, which is playing a critical oversight role in monitoring public spending on COVID relief. 

Both organizations are part of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, the Latin American and Caribbean Tax Justice Network, and the Central American Tax Justice Network, and share an interest in promoting tax transparency and public participation in tax decisions. Together with eight other organizations from Central America, FUNDE and ICEFI recently created the Center Against Corruption and Impunity in the North of Central America, where we seek to address transparency and corruption in the governments of the Northern Triangle. 

Q: What have you and FUNDE gained from the partnership with IBP and our training and advocacy initiative?

A: We’ve managed to increase pressure on the government to achieve greater budget transparency. The current administration in El Salvador, like the previous ones, avoids important public finance issues and needs to revise certain aspects of its handling of the national budget. For this, the support of the EU has been vital in its interactions with the Treasury and the requests it has channeled to El Salvador’s government about where budgetary improvements can be made. Thanks to the prestige and legitimacy of IBP, we have established a critical mass of actors and organizations interested in budget matters. Like other organizations working on open budgets, we have already carried out education and fiscal training but are limited by participants’ varied interests. The presence of IBP has made it possible to address the issue in a more structured manner and with a long-term vision. The term “transparency” has been used excessively in El Salvador to the point where it has lost its meaning. During our trainings and workshops with IBP, it is emphasized that we are specifically talking about “budget transparency”, which helps participants understand the issues more precisely and therefore take targeted action.

Q: How did El Salvador score on IBP’s COVID study? What are your main impressions?    

A: The COVID study helped us think more systematically about financing for emergencies, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to use that process to highlight in very clear and discrete ways the processes that were followed as well as the lapses that occurred. For instance, government officials failed to follow the formal processes that exist for administering and authorizing the budget. We were able to highlight positive developments, such as the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee in the legislature, as well as lapses, such as the fact that the government has not evaluated or published information on the impact of its relief package.  

In fact, to this day the government still has not produced a specific document that accurately details its 2020 spending on COVID-19 relief. A budget expenditure report is available, but not a specific document for pandemic-related spending. The Citizen Oversight Committee has been focused on getting this information. 

Although the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee was a positive development, in practice some officials have been reluctant to provide timely and substantive information to the committee. This is happening despite the fact that the legislative decree that created the Committee allows for the committee to have unrestricted access to information and indicates that officials who fail to provide information should be sanctioned. 

Q: What recommendations do you have for the government of El Salvador to improve accountability for COVID-related expenses? 

A: After the initial lockdown, the government resumed monthly publications on its online portal, including for information regarding the execution and modification of the budget. The information is relevant but lacks detail; for example, it does not include the objective of specific expenditures. The information published on the government portal also lacks detail about the sources of financing, including tax or other contributions to the treasury, donations, external loans and financing, and the placement of securities, among other things.   

The Ministry of Finance claimed that urgency is the reason it did not introduce loans through the standard budget process, which would have meant requesting that the Legislative Branch approve the additional resources into budget line items. Instead, they introduced new funds into the budget through an Executive Agreement. Nevertheless, executive agreements to allocate funds and/or modify the budgets of public entities through the Official Gazette must also be made public, without exception. To date, several of them are not public.  

The public portal of Comprasal should be updated as soon as possible with information on COVID-related purchases. The Prevention and Mitigation of Disasters Fund and the Trust for the Economic Recovery of Salvadoran Companies, which is administered by the Development Bank of El Salvador, must also provide detailed information on their sources of financing, the distribution of funds, and the execution of expenses, as well as a public list of beneficiaries. This information must be made publicly available online. 

COVID-19 & Accountability in The Gambia

COVID-19 & Accountability in The Gambia

A public health emergency is testing whether Gambian civil society can keep tabs on the national budget 

The Start of a Change Agent

After decades of dictatorship, The Gambia had its first transfer of power by popular election in December 2016. This election brought hope, but unravelling decades of dictatorial rule has proven difficult. Government funds earmarked for public projects often end up in the hands of individuals with connections to politicians or used to benefit special interests.  

Ahead of the watershed 2016 election, Marr Nyang resigned from his job at a well-regarded law firm to embark on a grassroots voter education and engagement campaign. Following the campaign’s success, he established Gambia Participates as a civil society organization to bolster good governance.       

“I started Gambia Participates because I realized there were no organizations promoting fiscal transparency, doing anti-corruption work, or bringing the public into the fold,” Nyang said. “It was only done at the government level and inconsistently. I decided to start Gambia Participates in 2016 during that toxic political environment. After the change in government, I started pushing for fiscal discipline, transparency, and accountability. Fast forward and we’ve seen great improvements, but also have big challenges when it comes to the mismanagement of public wealth.”  

The organization works to ensure budget transparency and a budget that “reflects the needs and aspirations of the people,” as Marr puts it. They also monitor and hold the government accountable for how it spends the budget. Over time, they have successfully nudged the Gambian government, and the Ministry of Finance in particular, to improve governance standards and budgetary reporting.  

In December 2020, as part of its work to monitor and hold the government accountable, Gambia Participates sued the National Assembly for violating the budget process by forcefully inserting a US$1 million loan scheme for Members of Parliament in the 2021 budget. On 4 May 2021, the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional and the loan scheme was consequently removed from the enacted budget.  

 The Open Budget Survey as a Vehicle for Reform

The Open Budget Survey, published by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) in collaboration with partners in close to 120 countries around the world, helps local civil society assess and confer with their government on the reporting and use of public funds. The Gambia took part in the Open Budget Survey for the first time in 2019 thanks to Gambia Participates and its dynamic leader. 

Since the country took part in the survey, the government signalled a willingness to make its budget documents more transparent. For the first time, the Ministry of Finance published the Executive’s Budget Proposal (EBP) on time and well before the enacted budget was approved. The EBP is the national budget that is tabled before parliament and is widely considered to be the government’s most important annual economic policy statement. Timely publication of the EBP is critical, as it can enable the public and CSOs to make submissions on their needs and priorities to their elected representatives before the budget is approved into law. 

Prior to this, the EBP had only been made available in hard copy for the Ministry of Finance and National Assembly. By making the EBP and other such documents available to the public, the Gambia demonstrated its support for informed public debate on the budget. Furthermore, this is one of the key criteria used to assess and rank countries in the Open Budget Survey. The government also published the 2019 budget on the Ministry of Finance website for the first time.  

These are significant wins for the people of The Gambia and for advancing global transparency norms. “I believe the Open Budget Survey was a wake-up call for the government to acknowledge its weaknesses and work towards improving them by collaborating with civil society,” Marr said. “In partnership with IBP we realize it is important for there to be a standard roadmap to ensure increased budget transparency, citizen participation in the budget, and accountability around the budget process.”      

When COVID-19 hit, Gambia Participates leveraged the skills learnt from conducting the Open Budget Survey to analyze how COVID-19 emergency funds were being used and to hold the government accountable.  

 Pivoting during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test of good governance in the country since the end of dictatorial rule. As the virus spread, the government created a $10 million emergency response fund to provide the medical sector with the tools to keep the pandemic under control. Gambia Participates leveraged the skills and knowledge obtained from its work on the Open Budget Survey to track where and how the emergency funds were being spent. 

As the investigation into COVID-19 spending unfolded, field workers from Gambia Participates began noticing a lack of personal protective equipment among frontline workers throughout the country. They also discovered hospitals in major population centers lacked basic items, like overhead thermometers. Frontline workers that Gambia Participates interviewed said funds had been mismanaged just as they had been during the Ebola crisis of 2014-16. 

Gambia Participates published an investigation titled “Corona, The Gambia, and the Millions,” in which it detailed the misappropriation of emergency funds. According to the investigation, only $3 million of the $10 million emergency fund had been spent. Moreover, much of the money that was spent had gone to “motor vehicles and hotels while treatment centers and isolation centers are in dilapidated conditions.”  

The Gambian Ministry of Health cooperated with the investigation and publicly reported that  the emergency funds had been spent on the procurement of medical equipment, the refurbishment of health facilities, as well as vehicles, training, and hotel accommodations for quarantined individuals. Field workers from Gambia Participates, however, painted a very different picture.  

Everywhere they visited, health workers and stakeholders complained of a lack of training on COVID-19 protocols; unfurnished isolation centers; inadequate sanitary materials; fraudulent names on the list of frontline workers eligible for hardship allowances; and, above all, a lack of preparedness. In the initial phases of the emergency response, there was no plan or budget in place to determine the actual expenditure of funds.  

Using the findings as a springboard, Gambia Participates offered policy reforms designed to prevent public sector corruption and strengthen the public finance sector and health facilities. While the Ministry of Health acknowledged the accusations of corruption and misuse of funds, it is yet to present solutions. 

Hard Work Remains

In January 2021, Gambia Participates, with support from IBP, held a workshop with key stakeholders from the Ministry of Finance, the National Assembly, civil society organizations, and the media to identify opportunities for improving fiscal transparency, budget oversight, and public participation in the national budget. Participants reviewed recommendations from the 2019 Open Budget Survey and reflected on gaps in the budget process that hindered the country’s performance.  

The outcome was a detailed roadmap that included a budget calendar to facilitate predictability and planning for the fiscal year. “When we designed the roadmap, each institution and stakeholder presented their challenges and opportunities, and then we discussed how to advocate for the roadmap to be part of the budget process,” Marr said. Gambia Participates sent the roadmap to the Ministry of Finance and the national audit office to ensure officials included it in their budget plans. All three stakeholders will hold discussions about how the government can start implementing the roadmap to fill in the gaps it has in budget transparency and public participation, and how Gambia Participates can collaborate with the government to implement the roadmap’s recommendations.  

The tide is starting to shift in The Gambia when it comes to public access to and scrutiny of budget decisions. Between Gambia Participates’ scrupulous work and the government’s willingness to improve, attention is focused on building long-term budget practices that will prepare the country for the next public health or other crisis.  

“The national budget is central to the socio-economic development of a country,” Nyang notes. “It is crucial for citizens to have a say in the budget process and to mainstream their priorities, which we continue to do at Gambia Participates by facilitating discussion between government officials and the electorate before and after the budget is approved.”  

With IBP’s support, the work carried out by Gambia Participates demonstrates that when civil society is properly equipped, open budget practices can be championed even during the immensely challenging conditions of a pandemic. When community-led organizations galvanize citizens to hold their governments accountable, the voices of those most in need are centered.  

This work forms part of IBP’s COAB initiative and is supported by the European Commission. 

Budget Trailblazers: Elena Calistru

Budget Trailblazers: Elena Calistru

In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talk with Elena Calistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian-based NGO that builds research-based, data-driven advocacy tools. Funky Citizens was one of our research partners on the COVID-19 assessment.

Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets?

A: It was 2011 and I got a letter from the tax authorities demanding I pay extra money. And despite being a highly educated person who works in civil society, monitoring issues related to transparency, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find any publicly available information to help me understand why I owed this money. I ended up paying the tax without knowing why and promised myself that it would never happen to me again.

Together with people from various sectors, we started looking into government budgets. We went through thousands of tables, hundreds of PDFs, and made hundreds of public officials hate us with all the FOIA requests. But we managed to visualize data related to public budgets, sometimes did cooking shows just to explain budgets for the average citizens and worked with journalists to investigate government expenditures. Essentially, I took my vulnerability in the face of authority and decided to empower myself and others to understand where our tax money goes.

Q: What is Funky Citizens’ primary goals and mission?

A: Founded in 2012, Funky Citizens promotes active citizenship and encourages citizens to get involved in initiatives meant to make the state institutions more responsible. We often collaborate with investigative journalists, given our expertise on topics such as the judiciary, public administration and, of course, public budgets. We are well-versed in data-based advocacy, communication and civic education.

Q: What was the process you used for conducting research for the Open Budget Survey COVID study?

A: We had been following COVID-19 allocations even before we started working with IBP on the COVID module of the Open Budget Survey. IBP’s call for transparency in the COVID-19 response and relief expenditures hit close home for us and prompted us to look early on at what was happening on the legislative front. This made it relatively easy to have a good understanding of the larger context, but also to choose the package that was most relevant as a case study for how the Romanian authorities responded to the pandemic.

In the end, even though there are numerous measures that could have been analyzed, we decided on the package that was passed relatively early (a budget revision with numerous measures ranging from fiscal stimulus to unemployment benefits or social assistance to rapid funds allocation for hospitals to the wider healthcare response). Starting from that package, we investigated follow-up to these measures, complementary resources and any changes to the initial package.

Q: What challenges did you face in the research process?

A: As in most countries that were assessed in the study, Romania suffered from a lack of transparency in the emergency response. For example, as part of the state of emergency regulations, FOIA response times were doubled, and given the fact that the Romanian authorities did not provide any regular updates on COVID-19-related spending, these restrictions made data collection difficult.

Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?

A: In an ideal world, the average citizen shouldn’t care about budgets. They would get good public services, decent infrastructure and a great quality of life from their tax money. But I think it is obvious for everyone that we live in a far from ideal world so monitoring what is happening with the budgets is necessary in the face of misspending and sometimes rampant corruption, even during times of crisis. But what we should have is an awareness that the transparency of the budgets is essential. Citizens should be sensitive to any attempt to hide any information related to public expenditures, even if that means that the data released about such expenditures will only be “consumed” by some activist data geeks or investigative reporters. Citizens should be the allies of people engaged in this work that can “translate” for the wider public, so they understand what is happening with the taxes that they are paying.

Managing Covid Funds: the accountability gap

Managing Covid Funds: the accountability gap

Background

When the Covid pandemic broke in early 2020, there was near unanimous consent that a crisis of this magnitude required governments to act boldly and swiftly to meet the needs of their people. By the end of 2020, governments mobilized a staggering $14 trillion in fiscal policy responses of different types.

While welcoming these responses, a chorus of voices, including ours, urged governments to put in place the transparency and accountability arrangements necessary to ensure that the massive resources being mobilized did not go to waste. Responding to the crisis in an open and accountable manner was a way for governments to restore public trust and build back better.

Working with civil society researchers in 120 countries, we documented the introduction of almost 400 emergency fiscal policy packages from March to September 2020 and assessed the largest or most important of these packages in each country.

Findings

Our assessment shows that more than two-thirds of surveyed governments are falling short of managing their fiscal responses in a transparent and accountable manner, thereby jeopardizing the effectiveness and impact of their responses to the crisis (Table of Results).

These shortcuts and limitations are neither necessary nor inevitable. Many countries across regions and incomes have chosen a different path. An urgent and speedy response does not have to come at the expense of accountability. There are three key findings in our COVID accountability report.

1. Governments have failed to adopt key measures to enhance accountability that many voices had demanded when governments began to announce their relief packages.

  • Only in about a quarter of countries assessed were auditors able to produce and publish audit reports on Covid fiscal packages before the end of 2020.
  • About half of the governments surveyed published little information on the implementation of policy initiatives.
  • Approximately two thirds of surveyed countries failed to follow transparent procurement procedures.

Despite this, some countries have shown a different way is possible. For example:

  • Paraguay has a one-stop-shop site that publishes information on all pandemic-related procurement.
  • In Jamaica, the Auditor General published three concurrent audit reviews of the government’s cash transfer program, and the Ministry of Finance worked closely with the national audit office to follow up on audit recommendations.
  • Recognizing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, Canada, the Philippines and Sweden published a Gender Impact Assessment of their COVID-19 response. And in Togo, in a short period of 10 days, the government established a transparent platform for a cash transfer program that prioritized women.

2. The role of legislatures has been limited during the pandemic.

In almost half the countries in our assessment, governments introduced fiscal policy measures through executive decrees, side-stepping normal legislative and approval processes and preventing public debate. Not surprisingly, countries that bypassed their legislatures were also generally less transparent in their Covid-related spending.

Again, some countries showed that a better way is possible. For example:

  • In Nepal, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee investigated irregularities in procuring medical equipment and supplies to hold to account those responsible for these failures.
  • In the Philippines, weekly reports on COVID-19 response actions are sent to a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee that oversees implementation.

3. Public participation in the formulation and execution of COVID policy responses is virtually non-existent.

This has not only excluded the public from having a voice in decisions on priority-setting during the pandemic but it has also deprived governments of inputs which could greatly improve the effectiveness of their actions. Only 10 out of 120 countries made any meaningful efforts at engaging with their populations in the design and oversight of relief monies.

Even as governments largely kept the public at bay, civil society groups have been active in mobilizing local communities and amplifying their needs to government. One of the most successful examples of civil society and government collaboration is the Asivikelane initiative in South Africa which is giving an active voice to informal settlement residents in major cities who are faced with severe basic service shortages during the crisis. Through targeted advocacy and campaigns, the initiative has already secured improved access to water, sanitation and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than one million people.

Going Forward

There are practical steps governments and donors can take to bolster accountability as part of the ongoing response and to build back better.

  • Governments can adopt reforms now such as publishing monthly progress report and disclosing procurement details in open formats. They can plus up resources for national auditors to conduct expedited audits and take remedial measures in response to their reports. They can take actions to restore legislative oversight. Further, they can also leverage existing mechanisms in the executive, legislatures and within national audit offices to facilitate citizen participation in the formulation, approval and execution of new Covid-related packages.
  • Over the long-term, governments can strengthen systems in the annual budget cycle to be better prepared for future crises. These include reforming legal and regulatory frameworks to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas such as procurement, oversight and participation. They can also integrate innovations that emerged from this crisis, such as providing user-centered information.
  • The international donor community can play an important role in advancing accountability norms in emergency spending. As part of their assistance, donors should urge and support country-led efforts to publish more information about what governments are spending and its impacts and to facilitate oversight by legislatures, auditors and citizens.

The COVID crisis is far from over. We must keep mobilizing resources for the global COVID response, including filling the funding gap for COVAX to ensure everyone has equitable access to vaccines. But if we are serious about equity and justice, we must simultaneously get serious about accountability. This is about ensuring assistance reaches those who need it most. When governments do not deliver as promised, underserved communities bear the brunt.