Countries around the world have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis by expending trillions of dollars to support their economies and provide relief to their populations. Governments are following expedited procedures to quickly channel funds to relief and recovery programs. Still, a key challenge that countries are facing is ensuring that funds contribute to recovery and reach intended beneficiaries. This is a serious concern as cases of misuse and mismanagement of COVID-19 funds have been reported on every continent.
Supreme audit institutions are key
Fortunately, countries already have organizations such as the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) that are responsible for providing independent assurance on the effective and lawful use of government monies, improvement in public service delivery, and response to disasters. In fact, in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit South and South-East Asia in 2004, the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) issued special standards on disaster-related expenditures. Further, during the Ebola pandemic in 2014, the SAIs of Liberia and Sierra Leone were lauded for their audits of emergency programs, which received extensive coverage in the national and global media.
Civil society’s involvement is necessary
Simultaneously, civil society organizations (CSOs) have also developed innovative methodologies to monitor government expenditures during emergencies and ensure that remedial measures are instituted based on audits conducted by SAIs. For example, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes that hit Mexico and Nepal in the past few years, local CSOs used audit reports issued by their national SAIs to demand that their governments implement reforms in relief programs.
CSOs have now joined calls made by various international bodies and financing agencies for SAIs to be more involved in the monitoring of COVID-19-related funds. These are positive developments but more needs to be done to ensure that audit findings foster the efficient and effective use of public resources for the benefit of citizens.
Effective oversight relies on an ecosystem
In November 2020, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) are releasing a joint report that assesses the adequacy of national oversight systems based on data from 117 countries in the latest Open Budget Survey.
Audit and oversight are an “ecosystem,” consisting of a set of interconnected actors, conditions and processes that need to be in place and function well for the system as a whole to perform effectively. Although SAIs lead the charge, the success of their audits in upholding accountability and enhancing performance in large part depends on the actions of legislators, civil society, the media and ultimately the executive.
Overcoming barriers that limit accountability
Too often, SAIs suffer from deficiencies that are compounded by weak legislative oversight, inadequate responsiveness from executives to reports, and few opportunities for public engagement in the audit and oversight process. These challenges preceded the pandemic and are likely to be exacerbated by the crisis. The IDI-IBP report suggests that all partners of the oversight system need to take action to strengthen accountability. Recommendations include:
Increasing the mandate, independence and resources of SAIs to audit public funds, including special funds established to channel resources emergency programs,
Improving the quality of audits by strengthening systems and independent quality checks,
Enhancing transparency with timely publication of audit reports and tracking executive responses to recommendations,
Ensuring that legislatures scrutinize SAI reports, including the ones on emergency spending measures, and
Expanding opportunities for public engagement during the formulation of plans, legislative discussions, and crucially, executive implementation of audit recommendations.
It is very important that governments and other stakeholders use audits to ensure that public funds are expended in a manner that will best save lives and reduce hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
*Martin Aldcroft is Senior Manager of the Strategic Support Unit of the INTOSAI Development Initiative, Vivek Ramkumar is the Senior Director of Policy at the International Budget Partnership and Edward Olowo-Okere is Director of the Global Governance Practice at the World Bank.
Social protection policies play a fundamental role in sustaining minimum living conditions for the most vulnerable, and during COVID-19, an increasing number of countries are adopting specific social protection measures to counteract the economic impact of the pandemic. According to the World Bank, as of June 2020, at least 131 countries have put in place conditional or unconditional cash transfers schemes to protect the most marginalized populations. Cash transfers are by no means a new policy tool; they have proven effective to prevent households from falling below subsistence levels in various settings. However, the pandemic is testing these policies as never before and raising new concerns around their effectiveness, spurring the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and our partners to examine how we can improve and transform these programs.
Cash transfer programs: a global success story, but with persistent challenges
COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge to economies around the world and its impacts will be felt the most among the most marginalized individuals in society. Economy-wide lockdowns, overwhelmed health care systems and quarantines are already impacting the most vulnerable and could push a staggering 71 to 100 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2020, with many of those individuals living in regions that are already impacted by poverty-related challenges.
Rigorous evaluations of cash transfer programs have supported their implementation to fight poverty all over the world since the 1990s. Nevertheless, even before the pandemic, these programs had certain weaknesses, such as inadequate targeting mechanisms, improper implementation and insufficient benefit levels. As cash transfer programs have been expanded to respond to the pandemic, these limitations, as well as some newer constraints, have come into sharper relief. Inspired by the work of our partners within our Learning Network, we will collaborate to confront the limitations of current cash transfer policies and deepen our collective thinking and advocacy around income support.
Here, we highlight five of the many issues that we hope to explore further as an organization and alongside our Learning Network partners.
How can we improve targeting approaches that currently prevent eligible recipients from receiving benefits? Even before the pandemic, many cash transfer programs suffered from challenges in reaching the right beneficiaries, starting with the extent and quality of information available to facilitate proper targeting. In countries with limited administrative capacity, reaching individuals that live in informal settings or otherwise lack official records can be particularly difficult.
In Indonesia, the government launched a relief scheme for workers earning less than Rp 5 million per month in September 2020. The program targets employees who have been registered in the Workers Social Security Agency by their employers, however, according to the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (SEKNAS FITRA), the agency did not include a number of eligible workers. They argue that the government should collaborate with trade and labor unions to improve the identification process, while a complaint center could be established for workers who meet the requirements but are not yet included.
In South Africa, the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) along with the Budget Justice Coalition (BJC) have raised concerns about the government’s pandemic relief package which requires banking details, proof of residence and identity documents, thereby excluding millions of individuals living and working in informal areas.
Can cash transfer programs be expanded so that more of those in need are included? Traditionally, most cash transfer programs are narrowly targeted to the poor, the extreme poor and specific sectors. Cash relief programs introduced during the pandemic have also been designed to benefit the most vulnerable individuals but given the scale of the impact of COVID-19, many more households now fall in that category.Arguments are being put forward to substantially expand the types of households that might qualify for such support and how we define who qualifies. Some of IBP´s partners are also encouraging their governments to expand access to cash assistance to a much wider range of groups.
CBGA in India maintains that the provision of Rs. 500 (USD$ 6.50) for three months to poor women is too low and have called for a cash transfer scheme of at least Rs 7.000 per household for three months to effectively help families as a whole. They also propose expanding the existing PM-KISAN program to ensure landless agricultural workers are not excluded.
Can cash transfer programs be fortified to operate on a more permanent basis instead of an ad hoc response to crises? The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first global crisis that governments have had to navigate, nor will it be the last. It is worth exploring how cash transfer programs can evolve into automatic entitlements rather than ad hoc emergency responses. Resolving this might mean permanent extension of some programs or the introduction of rule-based entitlement schemes (e.g., when unemployment rises, some schemes automatically start or expand without further authorization needed).
Do we need programs that do more than fight extreme poverty? Initially created to address extreme poverty, it is now worth asking if cash transfer programs can and should do more to address the structural inequities that exist in many economies and be improved to provide support to all those who need it. This might involve moving beyond current conceptions to universal basic incomes, full employment guarantees or increased redistribution through taxation to support aggregate demand.INESCin Brazil initially advocated to expand the support devised by the government, calling for a three-month emergency basic income to the poorest. The government reacted by approving a proposal consisting of three installments of 600 reais per month. However, by partnering with multiple organizations, they now seek to establish a permanent basic income system.
Who’s going to pay for this? Governments will need to ask themselves how to pay for social protection programs like cash transfers, especially as they expand in times such as the pandemic and addressing the challenges discussed above could be prohibitive. Context matters here and some governments have access to easier finance and more domestic borrowing than others.
With no end in sight to the economic fallout of the pandemic, cash transfer programs will likely continue to be a critical resource for governments looking to support their constituents. Moving forward, IBP – alongside our partners – will be facilitating discussions and collaborations on these programs around the world to not only understand what’s working and what’s not working but to explore different ways of working on various policy areas more broadly. Watch this space for updates and opportunities to join the conversation.
Most children in the world are not attending school. Millions are unlikely to return. Disruptions to cash, food, health, protection and other programs leave hundreds of millions of children exposed to hunger, violence, sickness and even death. Such risks are magnified where household income has fallen due to job loss, lower earnings and/or fewer remittances.
“If you are not infected, you are affected.” Once commonly used when referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this same phrase can now be applied to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While younger children are not considered at high risk of direct health complications due to the virus, the epidemic is having an indelible and devastating impact on their current and future lives.
COVID-19 has significantly overstretched the capacity of many governments to finance the delivery of essential services to children and their families. Well before the pandemic, many countries were failing to invest sufficient resources in programs that improve the wellbeing of vulnerable populations, including children. With the collapse of government revenue alongside the surge in demand for spending in recent months, fiscal deficits are widening to historic proportions. In this context, governments must ensure that massive budget reallocations and fiscal stimulus packages do not crowd out spending on goods and services that often serve as a lifeline.
Government spending decisions have life and death consequences. A study by The Lancet shows that a modest disruption of health systems and decreased access to food is likely to kill an additional 1.1 million children and 56,000 mothers over the next six months as an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that public finance decisions taken today will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the world’s 2.4 billion children and their caregivers, especially those living in developing countries.
Public oversight of government spending is imperative
At all times, but clearly even more so during periods of crisis, creating opportunities for the public to provide input and monitor how governments allocate public funds is crucial. Yet, we know from the results of the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS 2019) that most countries fall short of this. As the world’s only independent, fact-based, and comparative assessment of public budget accountability — transparency, oversight, and public engagement — the OBS offers insight into how inaccessible government budgets can perpetuate poverty and inequality.
For example, recent research by UNICEF and the International Budget Partnership found that one-third of the budget for immunization programs in 22 countries went unspent during the period from 2009 – 2017, the most recent years for which data was available. Without an open budget process, it is unclear what happened to these resources. While poor budget transparency practices are a major concern for children during normal times, the stakes have never been higher than in 2020.
As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to intensify across the globe, there is a danger that the open budget agenda will reverse and close. Normal budgeting and spending processes have already been upended as emergency packages move forward with limited or no consultation from the public. Parliamentary oversight functions have been significantly reduced in many countries, and lockdowns have created new public finance planning and implementation challenges. The year 2020 is likely to be characterized by the largest public spending deviations in all of history.
Open budgets can be an effective tool in creating a better future for our children
As we cope with this crisis, we also see an opportunity to shape the future — where citizens and government are in active dialogue about the best way to invest scarce resources. Open budgets help align government spending with the needs of vulnerable communities.
Producing comprehensive, useful, and timely budget information enables different groups to assess the impact of government spending and hold governments accountable. In addition, higher credit ratings from improved transparency allow governments to borrow more and cheaper funds, while also attracting greater budget support from donors. This increases the overall pot of resources and potential impact of national budgets on people’s lives.
We’ve seen firsthand how information from the OBS empowers governments and civil society to quickly improve budget openness.
Using results from OBS 2017, UNICEF and IBP supported finance ministries in implementing budget transparency improvement action plans, which catalyzed the publication of more budget information and created new spaces for citizens to contribute to public finance decisions. As a result of these efforts, 15 of the 19 countries in Eastern and Southern African that participated in the latest rounds of the OBS recorded significant improvements in their scores.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we must advocate for and keep the pressure on governments to conduct proper consultations in forming their budgets, carefully document what is being funded, and report on the impact of that funding to hold them accountable.
In recent days, IBP and UNICEF convened a conversation on the transparency of health and education budgets with over 150 participants from government and civil society around the world as well as a discussion with finance ministry officials and civil society organizations from more than a dozen countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to discuss the latest Open Budget Survey results.
Kenya has a firm legal and regulatory framework governing access to information. The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, Article 35, further elaborated by the Access to Information Act 2016, guarantees citizens the right to access information. Section 7(3) of PFM regulations, 2015, specifically demands that budget information be publicized within seven days.In addition to the national legislation, Kenya has ratified several regional and international treaties committing to upholding and promoting access to information. In this article, I focus on access to public budget information.
Access to information remains a prerequisite factor for meaningful public participation in budgets and policy decision processes. Citizens need information on how the government raises, allocates and spends money, as well as the quality of services delivered as outcomes. Further, there are provisions for public participation in the constitution and subsequent legislation. Despite the progress made in legal frameworks for access to information and public participation in the budget-making process in the last decade, the implementation has yet to be fully achieved at the county or national levels.
According to the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2019, Kenya scores 20% in its level of public participation in the budget process, and 50% in transparency. Although this is an improvement from the 2017 score of 47%, the level of transparency is still low. Sadly, the challenge of access to information is equally alive at the county level. IBP Kenya conducts a bi-annual survey that measures how much budget information counties publish on their website. The latest survey revealed that only Elgeyo Marakwet had all seven documents of the budget cycle available, Laikipia and West Pokot had published six out of seven documents and Kitui County had five out of seven documents available. Ironically, Nairobi and Mombasa – two of Kenya’s major urban counties – had only published three and two documents respectively. Kisumu, Migori, Lamu and Garissa counties published no documents. These statistics demonstrate that most counties still have a long road ahead to meet the requirements for public access to information.
How has COVID-19 affected Access to Information and public participation?
COVID 19 has had socio-economic impacts as the government directs its efforts in combating the spread of the virus. The public finance environment has changed drastically and if not observed, the principles of good financial practices may become a casualty. However, despite the glaring effects of COVID-19, the government processes such as the budget, are ongoing. The Constitution and the PFM Act are clear on the timelines and guidelines for the budget cycle, therefore the government, both national and counties, ought to proactively come up with alternative measures for ensuring public participation does not come to a halt. The already ailing public participation practice in most counties seems to be getting worse as efforts to avail required information on time become negligible. However, the big question should be, what are our stakeholders and community members doing about the situation? Should we just sit as we watch the fading of accountability, openness, access to information and transparency principles? The response is no, for all is not lost.
How persistence bridged the gap of access to information in Mombasa
‘Who sent you? Where do you work? Why do you want this information?’ These are popular questions that anyone attempting to request for information, particularly in Mombasa County, has encountered. Dissatisfaction with how public participation is conducted in Mombasa County sparked my bid to find a solution. The county has made efforts to implement public participation regulations, however, the full threshold of public participation is still a dream yet to come true. Public participation in the budget process has been conducted as an event rather than a process. One of the key concerns is untimely access to information. In the several public participation forums I have attended, I have witnessed as voluminous budget documents, even 100 pages or more, are read and summarized within two hours, and participants are randomly asked for their views. This leaves most of the participants with little or nothing to contribute since it is not easy to engage in something you have no idea of. Even the numbers are enough to confuse! This is why the law strictly prescribes for at least two weeks’ notice and availing of the required information before the forum.Regrettably, the department of devolution and public service administration, which is mandated to carry out civic engagement, has not fully exploited this mandate, and the role of educating the public about the budget process is left to civil society organizations.
I decided to be more proactive with the 2020/21 budget process in Mombasa County. I have been engaging and training a group of budget champions, most of who are journalists and community workers. Being cognizant of the budget timeline of September, the Annual Development Plan (ADP) was not availed and a public participation forum was not held. This was the beginning of my journey of making official requests for the ADP using an ATI tool. The requests, even though received, were followed by pure silence until the County Budget Review and Outlook Paper (CBROP) was due. The CBROP was not published in the respective County Assembly or executive websites! When I requested the document from a Member of County Assembly), he told me that he had a hard copy and I could arrange to pick it. However, my goal was not to pick up the CBROP -what about the 1.2 million residents in the county who have the right to read it?
There is a parable in the Bible of a persistent widow who kept demanding justice against her adversaries from a judge. The widow was eventually granted justice due to her persistence. I decided to be the persistent widow and kept demanding information from Mombasa County. On 14th February my team and I did another ATI requesting the ADP, CBROP and quarterly implementation reports to be uploaded on the website or provide a soft copy. Old habits die hard, and after 21 days, we still had not received the documents.
Our efforts were almost derailed when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country, as the national government implemented immediate directives and measures to contain the virus. At this point, citizens were in panic mode in a quest to adapt to the new normal that was going to stay with us. Change of the strategy was the next step. With limited movement and measures such as physical distancing, it was not easy to access county offices to request information. The next course of action was to kill the snake with the stick at hand, and that meant using social media platforms where almost every duty bearer is a subscriber and an active user. As residents, we were still in the dark as far as budget information is concerned. In collaboration with the Coast Civil Society Organization Chair, we were contacted by the Star for an interview on the status of governance in the county. An opportunity presented itself and I had to lobby and advocate for access to information more so during the COVID-19 period. At this point, it was not a one-man battle but a joint effort with several actors in the county.
The power of social media platforms
On 21 May, the county issued a public notice on public participation through a memorandum on the proposed budget estimates 2020/21. This came after a long struggle, constant follow-up and tagging county leaders on social media asking for these documents, as well as writing to the speaker of the county assembly through the Chair of the Mombasa Governance thematic group. In recent years, the county has tended to indicate that the documents are available on their websites when that is not the case. Perhaps, this was the assumption that after all, no one was going to follow up. This already tells you how sometimes the public’s disinterest in holding leaders accountable can be taken as a strength by some duty-bearers.
After the notice was posted on the Mombasa County sub-county administration, Facebook, and twitter page, I visited the county assembly website just to confirm the availability of the document. I was not surprised to find that the Budget Estimates document was unavailable. The public notice and call for submission were the only documents available, along with the previous years’ budget estimates. It was a time to act and do something about the unavailability of the required budget documents. Section 13 (c), 17 (m) (n), and section 19 (1) of the Mombasa Public Participation Act, 2017, provides for guidelines on public participation and access to information. Despite having good policies and regulations at the county level, implementation remains is a big challenge.
Fortunately, three-quarters of Mombasa County leaders are on Facebook and Twitter, so despite the COVID-19 restrictions, we could still engage online. This had earlier proved effective after we had carried out a campaign dubbed’ Rudi Bunge campaign’ meaning ‘Resume to the assembly sessions campaign’ with other partners in Mombasa on 25th April 2020. Through the campaign, we had demanded all Members of County Assembly to reconvene their sessions to ensure oversight as well as approving the supplementary budget. After tagging the Members of the county Assembly s, our campaign was successful and a section of the county assembly committees reported back to work.
After confirmation that the Budget estimates were unavailable on the assembly’s website, I went back to the public notice, tagged the County Executive and the County Assembly and requested that they upload the document. Further, I took to my Twitter page as well as KeBudgetTalk page and posted the public notice while tagging more partners from Mombasa as well as the county authorities. Ke Budget Talk is a budget literacy and communication platform initiated to further public participation and enhance dissemination of budget related information during and afterCOVID-19.The discussion was picked positively and attracted interest from several stakeholders and civil society members in Mombasa. Since the day the public notice was publicized, I took screenshots daily whenever I visited the county assembly page for documentation on the untimeliness of access to information in the county. Importantly, it is advisable to engage with credible facts more so when advocating to seal the information gaps. To firm up the social media advocacy efforts for requesting information, we joined with partners in the governance network in Mombasa. A meeting was convened with the relevant county stakeholders and representatives from diverse groups in Mombasa, during which we presented our position paper and our demands for the budget process for 2020/21. As the way forward in the meeting, the county officials committed to uploading the information. Up until this time, I had kept a good record of the screenshots until the documents were uploaded on 28th May 2020 in the county assembly website. The picture below is a summary of the documentation that I had compiled on the journey to persistent requests and demand for Budget document information.
Social media can be a good avenue for communication and demanding accountability from our leaders.
Persistence, proactiveness and partnerships (3Ps) are required when pushing for an agenda.
Credibility and documentation- it is always imperative to engage with facts that can be verified.
To attain meaningful participation, accurate, consistent, comprehensive and timely information is important. Best practice would be availing the required information to the citizens without any form of coercion and as stipulated by the law. The public and stakeholders have a role to play in demanding information and engaging fully in influencing decisions that affect them.
Governments around the world are at a critical juncture. Democracy is continuing to erode in countries across the globe, with increasing threats to citizens’ freedoms and restrictions on civic organizations. At the same time inequality is high and rising. Frustration with governments (democratic or not) failing to address peoples’ needs, alongside cases of corruption, has caused citizens to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers, forcing government action. Yet often the root causes of impunity remain untouched.
At the moment, these medium-term trends are overshadowed by the COVID-19 emergency. Faced with this crisis, governments in the north and south have taken action, both to protect their populations from the virus and, given the economic harm often necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, to provide social protection programs. Effective response by governments are necessary to save lives and prevent families from falling into poverty and hardship in the short term, and hold the key to coming out the other side of this crisis with strengthened social safety nets, health systems, and more. However, it is likely that funds meant to strengthen public health infrastructure and reach vulnerable groups will be mismanaged. This is an opportunity for public auditors to ensure that public money is well spent during and after the crisis.
This is the moment for Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), entities mandated with checking whether public funds are being managed properly, to become much more visible accountability champions, strengthening their hand to ensure government resources reach people in their moment of need. However, many SAIs will struggle to seize that opportunity. Evidence shows us that even technically sound audits undertaken by independent auditors are often not acted upon by governments. Parliaments may not take up the audits, or if they do, they may not enforce meaningful action. Findings of mismanagement or corruption could potentially implicate politically well-connected actors, both inside and outside government. Thus, it is not surprising there would be resistance to holding them to account, which could embarrass the government and even shut down what might be lucrative opportunities for enrichment. Of course, not every audit finding is about corruption and some may point to challenges faced in delivering complex public programs. In these cases, even if audits point to the right solution, these may be difficult to put into practice. Both a political economy lens, who stands to lose from audit findings being acted upon, and a practical lens of the challenges of implementing audit recommendations, may point to barriers to meaningful action.
Even in contexts of a weak accountability ecosystem and limited democratic governance, evidence shows that civic action is an important factor in audits being acted upon by government. In the best cases, citizen participation with SAIs is both a means to more effective audits and ultimately greater accountability, and an end in itself in terms of democratizing audit processes, strengthening the accountability ecosystem, and deepening citizenship practices. However, engaging citizens and civil society is no magic bullet, as examples of ‘box ticking’ in other domains, such as participatory budgeting, confirm. Collaboration between mobilized citizens, CSOs and SAIs can lead to effective coalitions with powerful synergies, but this requires significant effort to build relationships, strategize together and align ways of working.
Given the many challenges faced by citizens and governments around the world, there is an urgent need for SAIs to be more effective in their oversight efforts to ensure scarce public resources are used most effectively. During the present COVID emergency, lives depend on it. Accountability strategies that leverage SAI, CSO and broader citizen roles – along with media, private sector and other government actors, such as parliaments and courts – can mitigate some of the challenges faced by oversight actors, particularly during the COVID emergency. This can lead to public resources being used more effectively in the short term. In the long term, it could contribute to strengthening and democratizing the accountability ecosystem.
“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.