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.
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.
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 Dr. Sandra Guzmán, founder and global agenda coordinator at the Climate Finance Group for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Q: How did you get involved in the environmental sector and climate change work?
A: I studied international relationships to understand the best ways to collaborate among countries to face a global crisis such as hunger and poverty. However, while I was studying, I identified a significant threat for all of humanity related to the environment: climate change. I understood that climate change was a problem caused by human activities, especially in developed countries. I realized that while developing countries may not be the major emitters of greenhouse gases that caused climate change, these countries are following production patterns and consumption patterns that threaten the environment.
Q: How did you come to realize the importance and intersection of climate change and budget work?
A: After focusing my work on what is necessary to take developing countries down an alternative development path, I realized that the key problem is not always the existence of the necessary policies, but the lack of resources to implement them. This led me to start analyzing public budgets to understand to what extent these budgets were aligned to climate action. I concluded that there will not be a successful transition toward low carbon development if countries do not mainstream climate change in their planning and budgeting processes.
Q: How was the Climate Finance Group for Latin America and the Caribbean started and what are you currently working on?
A: In collaboration with friends and colleagues, we created the Climate Finance Group for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2012. After many years of work, including my doctoral studies, we launched a campaign called “Sustainable Finance for the Future: putting life at the center of investments“and created the Sustainable Finance Index – a tool that tracks budget allocations related to climate change, as well as allocations to activities that are carbon-intense, to identify the gaps that exist between these two. Simultaneously, the tool also measures the type of sustainable revenue that comes to these countries from international sources and those revenues that are also carbon intense.
Q: What are some of the findings you’ve discovered as a result of the Sustainable Finance Index?
A: We applied this index to the 21 major greenhouse gases emitters in Latin America and the Caribbean and found that none of these countries spent more than 1% of their budgets on sustainable matters in 2019. We also learned that they spent 6.5% of their budget in the energy sector, with 60.3% of that budget going to the production of hydrocarbons, while only spending 0.3% on renewable energy. While this is not good news, this information allows us to highlight these gaps and provide recommendations to structurally transform these governments and get them on a path to incorporating climate change in their planning and budgets.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about climate finance?
A: There is no topic more relevant to citizens than public finance. We’re seeking greater public participation related to climate and sustainable finance, including public and private resources. We call on people to engage in this conversation toward transforming the financial system to ensure that present and future investments protect the environment and human rights.
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Rongai Leakwara, a budget champion from one of the smallest and marginalized ethnic minority communities in Kenya, known as the Ilchamus community.
Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets?
A: I became involved in budget work to help my community better organize and engage in county budget making processes. As a person with a disability from the Ilchamus community, I became an active member of a support group for people with disabilities. It was through them that I was introduced to the Centre for Enhancing Democracy and Good Governance (CEDGG), a civil society group that works to empower vulnerable and marginalized citizens to engage with development and governance processes. CEDGG has truly played a big role in making me who I am today. Through CEDGG, I was able to learn about and engage in county budget processes to push for our community needs to be included in the county annual budgets.
Q: What skills and tools have you learned from your partnership with IBP that has helped your budget work?
A: I have learned about the county budget process such as the decisions that are being made, important dates in the process, the people involved and the role of citizens. I have also gained skills in analyzing budget documents, community organizing and facilitation of budget deliberations at the community level and engagement with government officials. More importantly, I have gained advocacy skills that have enabled me to engage government officials and follow up on their commitments to hold them accountable.
Q: How has becoming a budget champion in your community changed your life?
A: Being a community budget champion has raised my social status in the community and I am now recognized and respected in my community as a resource. Even men, who had previously looked down on women and people with disabilities, now call on me to educate them. For example, the Ilchamus Council of Elders has invited me to consult on their decision-making regarding development in our ward. In addition, government officials, media and research institutions reach out to me for my opinion on various development concerns within the Ilchamus community. In 2019, I was recognized and rewarded by the Baringo County government as a community heroine for championing for the rights of people with disabilities, women and the Ilchamus Community. However, what pleases me the most is when I see my community members accessing water, health and other services as a result of the budget advocacy work that I and my fellow budget champions have done.
Q: Why is it important for women to have a voice in budget processes?
A: Women play key social roles at the family level ranging from overseeing health care for the family to ensuring water is available for the household. Women end up shouldering the many costs that come with health care needs such as travelling to health care clinics and the purchase of medicine. Therefore, if only men participate, they may not remember to prioritize water projects or health services since they do not appreciate the struggles we go through. When men and women participate, budget decisions are likely to be balanced.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: We expect the government to implement development projects and improve services such as water and health services in our communities. But as a budget champion, I have come to learn that it is only through the budget that the government brings development to our community. We may continue complaining about poor services but unless they are factored in the budget, we may never see the improvements we want and need. Citizens also pay taxes which finance government activities, so we should care because it is about our money.
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are spearheading budget advocacy on the ground to affect transformational change in their communities.
This month we talked with Ubagu Martha Amuche, a member of COMEN (the Community Empowerment Network)in the Ojoto community in Anambra state.
Q: What inspired you to start working with COMEN?
A: To start working with COMEN was challenging, however, it is also the most satisfying volunteering community development work. I wanted to make a positive contribution to the growth and development of my community, build a network of people with shared goals, and gain professional skills and experience to meet the demands of society.
Q: What skills or tools did IBP bring that helped COMEN achieve their successes?
A: IBP supported us in gaining budget advocacy and process skills and shared reflections and lessons learned to help us achieve our successes. COMEN has been able to generate useful evidence by monitoring what the government is currently doing with the funds that have been budgeted in health sectors and other areas.
Q: What achievement with COMEN are you most proud of and why?
A: I am proud of leading members to advocate for Primary Health Care Centers, championing and defending civil society space and the formation of a partner network. Our partnership with the Justice Development and Peace Caritas helped us to influence and improve Primary Health Care Centers’ service delivery and provide the evidence needed for the #FixmyPHC campaign, which directly led to governments increasing money spent on Primary Health Care Centers.
Q: How has engaging in budget advocacy affected your life?
A: Engaging in budget advocacy has helped to understand the implications of budget choices and take action to help shape community budget choices.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: Citizen involvement in budgeting makes local service delivery more efficient and effective. Therefore, citizen participation in the budget is very important for the individual, government and society at large.
On Dec. 16, 2020, the Finance Ministry of the Republic of Indonesia and IBP held a high-level, virtual panel, “Getting it Right: Promoting Equity and Accountability in the COVID-19 Response,” which focused on equity and accountability in emergency public spending and how we can strengthen the role of civil society in monitoring these expenditures. The event garnered international media coverage from major outlets in Indonesia and Kenya and more than 3,300 viewers from across Canada, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, Tajikistan, United Kingdom and the United States.
Moderator Beena Pallical, General Secretary, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights was joined by Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General, United States of America, Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Minister of Finance, Republic of Indonesia and Warren Krafchik, Executive Director, International Budget Partnership for a conversation on the choices governments make while channeling public resources to combat COVID-19 – choices that will determine how many lives are saved and how many people fall into poverty.