Using data for social good: transparency of public finances is vital

Using data for social good: transparency of public finances is vital

This post also appears on Publish What You Fund’s website.

When it comes to government finances, we, taxpayers and donors alike, want to know what’s happening with our money. How much is there, where is it going, where is it coming from and is it serving its intended purpose for the wider public good? As governments rush to respond to the pandemic, the need for transparency, inclusion and oversight of budget decisions and the money flows are critical.

Yet, according to the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS), 86 out of 117 countries assessed (roughly 74%) fail to publish sufficient information on how public resources are generated, allocated, spent and, ultimately, what results are achieved.

What about information on donor assistance, in particular? Data on sources of both financial and in-kind aid is also difficult to find in government budget reports. Twenty-six surveyed countries (~25% of those receiving any aid) provide no information on aid in their Executive’s Budget Proposal – the blueprint for how the government will raise and spend funds to meet its economic and social policy goals – or in any other supporting documentation. The paucity of information provided may be exacerbated by the difficulties in predicting donor flows and the complex reporting requirements placed on recipients of aid.

Further, OBS findings on health and education budgets show that countries are lagging when it comes to publishing detailed information needed to assess service delivery, including data on actual spending, and information linking sector policies, budgets and performance. Data on the extent and use of donor financing for sectors is scarce, too. Only four of the 24 countries receiving aid and reviewed closely for this information in the survey provided information on how much funding each donor contributes to their country and how much goes to specific sector budgets.

The lack of transparency of governments’ revenues, spending and results limits opportunities for public engagement and effective oversight by the legislature and national audit offices. The OBS global average score for public participation in the budget process is just 14 out of 100. Where mechanisms, such as public hearings, do exist, they are rarely open to vulnerable and underrepresented communities, those who may be most in need of public services.

Civil society puts the data it can find to good use

In countries where aid is flowing in, civic organizations and communities are calling for information and opportunities to ensure public policies and programs serve those most in need.

In one example, civil society organization Integrity Watch Afghanistan engages communities in the monitoring of the quality of health services in more than 50 hospitals and 1000 health centers. They capture data on a real-time basis, including on the level of available resources and compliance with guidelines, through a newly developed COVID App. The data generated can be used to prioritize funds based on the needs identified through these surveys. As the government plans to amend the budget in response to COVID-19, this more timely, detailed information on the budget and contracts can help build trust and direct spending towards communities in need.

Across Cameroon, The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Follow The Money is tracking government spending and international aid in rural grassroots communities. The group monitors announcements of grants and donations for communities with limited means, and contacts the government, agency, or individual responsible for the grant to provide a breakdown of how they plan to spend the money leveraging the access to information law (FOIA). They also visit communities to check if they have received any funding or medicines based on the information received from the donors. Results are published and discussed on social media using #FollowCOVID19Money and radio stations and addressed with responsible authorities.

These activists join the myriad of organizations around the world who are advocating for transparency in response funds, more inclusive government responses, expanded and properly targeted support and more progressive systems. As detailed financial data are often lacking in the public domain, they use various channels, including community feedback and official media reports, to track responses and inform policies and programs. This important work of ensuring the effective use of public funds and building trust can be greatly enhanced by providing timely, comprehensive information and opportunities for meaningful public engagement.

How can we move forward?

While there have been gains in transparency over the last fifteen years, we still have a long way to go. Current levels of accessible information are too low and the pace of improvement too slow to help us ensure we’re on target to attain the Sustainable Development Goals and to live up to the Paris Climate Accord, let alone the pandemic response and recovery.

This is why a broad collective of actors, across social movements, think tanks and international organizations (including Publish What You Fund), are calling on governments to:

  1. Publish information on how public resources are generated, allocated and spent – in a timely manner that is accessible to all. This means relevant and useful information that people need, such as information on service delivery and debt burdens.
  2. Create opportunities for all people, particularly those from marginalized communities, to provide input into the budget process. We want meaningful and inclusive public participation, at least one practice in each of the executive, legislature, and supreme audit institution.
  3. Strengthen monitoring and oversight of budget execution through independent institutions. With careful documentation of expenditures, we need strong external audit functions and government follow-up.
  4. Sustain improvements achieved on open budgeting, protecting them from political shifts. Gains can be sustained through institutionalizations in law and regulations and strengthened coordination and capacities.

These targets are ambitious, but achievable over the next five years. Most countries have the technical skills, the data to share – and the champions to inspire change. Tools, such as the OBS and Aid Transparency Index, promote these goals and measure progress.

This agenda is one that can unite actors across sectors and countries. While speed is of the essence in these challenging times, so is an informed, inclusive approach to ensure funds deliver as needed in the coronavirus era and beyond.

Política fiscal y derechos económicos y sociales en tiempos de crisis: reflexiones sobre la respuesta de Argentina

Política fiscal y derechos económicos y sociales en tiempos de crisis: reflexiones sobre la respuesta de Argentina

El desarrollo de la crisis global por el contagio del COVID-19 y las necesarias medidas de distanciamiento social para frenar su avance, pusieron a la política fiscal y las decisiones presupuestarias en el centro del debate público. Ello es así porque se trata de la principal herramienta que tienen los Estados para contar con recursos suficientes para responder a la crisis.

Pablo Vitale, Argentina

Dado el impacto que esta crisis sanitaria y económica tiene en los grupos más desaventajados, las prioridades estatales deben guiarse por el respeto y cumplimiento de sus derechos, que nos dan un marco de obligaciones y principios esenciales para las respuestas a la pandemia. No es casualidad que los organismos internacionales de protección de derechos hayan requerido a los Estados que tomen medidas urgentes para proteger el trabajo y dar respuestas de seguridad social adecuadas a los sectores más afectados; asegurar el acceso a servicios básicos y a elementos de subsistencia como alimentos y medicamentos; así como aumentar el gasto público en salud, aliviar la deuda externa e impulsar la igualdad de género.

Si bien muchas de las medidas tomadas por el gobierno argentino a la fecha siguen esas recomendaciones, algunas fallan en dar una respuesta inclusiva y que, por sobre todo, asegure no dejar a nadie atrás.

Por años, desde ACIJ, hemos trabajado por asegurar el cumplimiento progresivo de los derechos económicos y sociales por medio de distintas vías, incluyendo el litigio estratégico, el trabajo presupuestario y de transparencia. Hoy nuestros esfuerzos se concentran en que estos derechos estén en el centro de las respuestas fiscales ante la pandemia. En abril publicamos una sistematización de las recomendaciones de organismos internacionales enfocados en la protección de derechos humanos y de las medidas tomadas por el gobierno nacional, donde incluimos herramientas de monitoreo colectivo e identificamos buenas prácticas para asegurar los derechos de los grupos más afectados durante la emergencia.

En Argentina, las medidas implementadas por el Estado para enfrentar la pandemia han sido diversas. Por ejemplo, se reforzó el presupuesto destinado a salud y seguridad social, se establecieron apoyos financieros a pequeñas y medianas empresas para sostener los puestos de trabajo, se creó el Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia -que consiste en transferencias monetarias para personas desempleadas, trabajadores/as informales y de casas particulares y familias de bajos recursos-, se prohibió el corte de servicios esenciales -como agua, luz, gas, telefonía, internet y cable- en caso de falta de pago para grupos de bajos ingresos, se reforzó la asistencia a comedores escolares y comunitarios, se prorrogaron los contratos de alquiler y se suspendieron los desalojos por falta de pago.

Si bien muchas de estas medidas siguen las recomendaciones de los organismos de derechos humanos, hay varias razones de preocupación que plantean la necesidad de tomar medidas adicionales a las implementadas hasta la fecha. La respuesta sanitaria tardía en villas y barrios populares -donde se ven las mayores tasas de contagio– y la aplicación de protocolos restrictivos, así como las demoras que han sufrido algunas familias en el acceso al Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia, muestran con crudeza la desigualdad que afecta a quienes viven en situación de vulnerabilidad en Argentina. De acuerdo a proyecciones recientes, la pobreza y la indigencia experimentarán un aumento en Argentina y la región, cuestión que podría exacerbar aún más los niveles de desigualdad.

Se suman también las limitaciones para garantizar la participación adecuada de los sectores más afectados en la toma de decisiones y, fundamentalmente, para enfrentar la crisis económica en curso y resolver las dificultades de los sectores informales. No existen en Argentina mecanismos de participación adecuados en temas presupuestarios, como se destacó en la última medición de la Encuesta de Transparencia Presupuestaria, donde el país obtuvo un desempeño deficitario, especialmente en lo relativo a oportunidades de participación pública durante las etapas de formulación y ejecución del presupuesto.

Para hacer un análisis exhaustivo sobre el impacto de las medidas adoptadas por Argentina se requiere de información detallada. El Estado nacional creó una web que centraliza información sobre las nuevas medidas y, si bien se puede seguir la evolución del gasto público porque se presenta información actualizada, desagregada y en datos abiertos, no es posible acceder a información sobre destinatarios del gasto, ni a datos actualizados sobre metas físicas. Se trata de información que antes de la pandemia tampoco se publicaba y es indispensable para mejorar la credibilidad presupuestaria.

Tres cuestiones que las instituciones públicas podrían implementar para subsanar estas limitaciones son:

  • sostener y profundizar la transparencia presupuestaria;
  • destinar esfuerzos a implementar mecanismos de evaluación de impacto que permitan conocer el resultado de las medidas de emergencia;
  • generar canales alternativos de participación que permitan a la sociedad monitorear el avance de las acciones estatales.

Por otro lado, la caída de la actividad económica ocasionada por la crisis reduce la capacidad estatal de recaudación que en Argentina ya era insuficiente. Se necesita un Estado con recursos suficientes para garantizar los derechos de los grupos más desaventajados y, para eso, no sólo se requieren políticas que atiendan la urgencia sino, fundamentalmente, medidas que avancen hacia un sistema fiscal equitativo en el largo plazo.

Un posible camino es la revisión de la política de gastos tributarios para eliminar exenciones fiscales injustificadas, que benefician principalmente a sectores de altos ingresos. También necesitamos sistemas tributarios progresivos, en los que aporten más quienes tienen mayor capacidad de pago, mediante impuestos a las riquezas que -al mismo tiempo que sirvan para financiar los enormes gastos económicos y sociales de la pandemia- sienten las bases para un sistema fiscal que no deje a nadie atrás.

Esta pandemia debería llevarnos a repensar la recaudación, el uso y el destino de los recursos públicos para revertir los inaceptables niveles de exclusión de la Argentina y permitir un acceso igualitario a derechos para quienes hoy enfrentan los costos más crueles de la crisis. Estamos, en efecto, ante una oportunidad para reflexionar sobre el rol de la política fiscal en la reducción de la desigualdad socioeconómica, tanto a corto como a largo plazo.

COVID-19 crisis: a key moment to strengthen transparency and accountability in Guinea

COVID-19 crisis: a key moment to strengthen transparency and accountability in Guinea

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit us hard around the world, with many lives lost and a devastating social and economic impact. For my country, this crisis has been a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of our social, health and economic systems. As the former Economy and Finance Minister for Guinea, my country’s budget accountability system, on which we rely to ensure that public funds deliver results -including protecting the most vulnerable – is of particular concern to me during the current crisis, when large sums of public money are being mobilized to fund emergency measures. I also believe this crisis is an opportunity, a decision point, a key moment for my country and others to strengthen transparency and accountability. For us, this pandemic could be a key moment to act in three areas.

First, we need to digitalize our public sector, starting with the Finance Ministry, where full transparency can help safeguard our public resources and ensure they reach the intended beneficiaries during the current crisis. The latest Open Budget Survey (OBS), released by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) at the end of April 2020, found that some of the weakest aspects of budget transparency are the ones most critical for monitoring public resources during times of crisis. These include limited data on budget execution and debt as well as the absence of information linking government policies to budgets. Releasing this information through existing websites or budget portals can help our government share more information with the public almost immediately.

My hope is that, as in other countries, these reforms will increase transparency and make it harder for pervasive corruption to go undetected by fostering a constructive dialogue between government and civil society. This could help initiate a much-needed transformation of a public sector aimed to deliver better quality public service to our citizens and our economy. This is particularly important as there is indeed a growing demand for transparency in my country, partly as a result of past successful experiences between 2016 and 2018, such as the first release of a citizens’ budget handbook, first publication of quarterly procurement reports and new debt bulletins. These were welcomed by civil society organizations.

Second, we must be more resolute and practical in implementing local content policies. The Ebola epidemic had, at that time, shown how vulnerable we were, because of our high economic dependency. The lesson we drew, in the context of increased isolation, was to promote local content policies, which can have a positive impact on the domestic economy by setting aside a certain percentage of expenditure for training and employment in local communities, the procurement of goods and services by local businesses, and completing projects in the health and education sectors. We vowed to change the trend and indeed some key milestones were reached with the adoption of a local content policy in 2017 and the set-up of a sub-contracting agency in 2018.

Amid the current crisis, the case for local procurement and building on these achievements has only strengthened. At a time when support from foreign donors is uncertain and our economy is under strain, local content can enhance domestic resource mobilization by widening the tax base and promote inclusive growth by sharing our wealth and creating jobs. A greater reliance on local procurement does not, however, absolve our government of its responsibility to be transparent and accountable; rather, a shift toward local content should create the incentives for greater transparency and accountability to domestic constituencies over external actors.

Third, we need to foster participation of the general public as a way to both enhance civic participation and tap into the potential offered by all stakeholders in terms of thinking and implementation capacities. Many African countries have developed their economic stimulus plans. And for this, countries have involved the general public with varying degrees. In Guinea, for instance, the government did not consult widely. This is a paradox as many of the measures identified, largely aim to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the private sector and citizens.

An aerial view of the Guinea capital, Conakry

The failure of government to adequately consult the public in budget decision-making is consistent with the latest findings of the OBS, which found that the global average for public participation in budget decision-making is a dismal 14 out of 100, with only two of the surveyed countries scoring more than the adequate score of 61. Still, there are encouraging signs that government, civil society, and the private sector can work together to create more space in the budget process for citizens’ voices.

In Guinea, a platform gathering private sector representatives is working to ensure that it is heard and included in a task force to be set up by government. It has already helped shape government’s actions by conducting and sharing outcomes of a survey and provided its inputs to government’s economic stimulus plan. As a next step, government should also consult with other sections of society, including the most vulnerable communities. This is important, because as IBP Executive Director Warren Krafchik put it, being “open and accountable” with public “budgets is not a luxury.” It is crucial in these troubled times and beyond.

While the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of many African countries’ budget systems and processes, the current crisis is also an opportunity: By thinking creatively and acting decisively, governments can take steps to increase transparency, facilitate public participation, and improve accountability – and, in so doing, ensure that public spending delivers results.

Indonesian partner helps urban poor navigate red tape and get promised COVID benefits

Indonesian partner helps urban poor navigate red tape and get promised COVID benefits

Kasih, 72, lives alone in a slum area of Jakarta.

Kasih, 72, lives alone in the alleys of Jakarta, supporting herself by cleaning other people’s homes. That is, until COVID-19 hit. With social-distancing requirements in place, she saw her meager business dry up. Despite a government social-protection program (called Family Hope) that offered conditional cash payments for people like her, she received nothing.

Then a community volunteer trained by IBP partner SPRI (Indonesian People’s Struggle) checked in on her neighborhood and discovered her situation. The volunteer photographed the conditions of the woman’s home and sent the documentation to the neighborhood leader—who merely said, “she’s not on my list.” So, SPRI went higher, to the village leader. This process went back and forth for a bit, but in the end, the organization was successful.

“Not only did the elderly woman receive the aid she needed, but also her neighbors, around 15 of them,” says Dika Muhammad, general secretary of SPRI. “It takes persistence.”

The mission of SPRI is to do just that: assure that eligible individuals and families get the social protection benefits they deserve, such as health care, food, education and a basic income. COVID-19 has made that more essential, and even more of a challenge.

The Indonesian government issued social-distancing orders March 16 and since then, the pandemic has spread to almost all provinces, with Jakarta the most affected (nearly 50% of the 24,538 confirmed cases at the time of this writing, including 1,496 deaths). SPRI typically works by organizing mass mobilizations and focus groups with policymakers. In addition, members had just completed IBP’s training on how to conduct a community social audit using an approach supported by Perkumpulan Inisiatif. But since such intensive outreach is now no longer possible, IBP is helping the organization pursue its mission in other ways.

For example, SPRI conducted an online survey of about 4,000 people from urban poor families in 36 Jakarta villages to determine who is not receiving the benefits but should be, as well as the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19. As a follow-up, SPRI is monitoring implementation of the government social-assistance programs. The results of the survey and monitoring will be displayed on a visual “needs map,” then sent to policymakers at the provincial and national levels to reform the social-assistance programs.

The SPRI Community Information Center. IBP provides partial support for electricity.

For those who don’t have internet, SPRI uses WhatsApp groups and paper forms that can be completed at a new Community Information and Complaint Center. Staffed by SPRI members and volunteers who have been trained as social auditors, the center educates those who could benefit from Family Hope and documents complaints from those who are not getting the assistance they need. The auditors also are being trained in citizen journalism so they can effectively tell the stories of COVID’s socioeconomic impact in their communities.

“The government data is not very complete or even credible, so many eligible poor people who should get help do not get it,” explains Mulyanah, a community center manager in Kramat Jati. “That’s why SPRI fights for this community. We don’t just focus on basic income, but also health care and education.”

For example, SPRI works in 36 urban villages in Jakarta. Before COVID, it had identified about 2,000 families needing assistance who were not receiving it. After the pandemic hit and the economic fallout became apparent, the online survey showed that 78.8% of urban poor residents had worked in the informal sector and now had minimal if any income. Even among those who previously had formal jobs, 62% now were unemployed. Overall, more than 91% had no cash assets at all.

The center also distributes aid.

“After COVID, the government slightly increased the amount given to recipient families, depending on the number of children,” says Tri, a community auditor in Duri Kepa. “But it’s still not much—maybe around 250,000 rupiah (US$10) per month for a family with one child.”

In addition to cash transfers, these families also should receive nine food staples, such as rice. However even if households receive the food, it is often contaminated with insects. Likewise, the food delivered is supposed to cover one month but may be sufficient for only a week.

Another issue is the promised level of cash support vs. reality: For example, the government has said in the media that an average family of five would get 600,000 rupiah, but when it’s delivered, it’s maybe around 300,000—half what was promised. Or, sometimes families learn that the amount delivered must be shared with other households.

“Before SPRI established the complaint center, these families didn’t know to whom or how to report the problems,” explains Suryati, a community center manager in Tomang. “The government didn’t provide a channel for reporting or complaints. Now, they have someplace to go. They know that SPRI will take several steps to follow up on their complaints, including going to the appropriate line agency. We are their advocate.”

Lessons learned: engaging the public in budget discussions despite social distancing

Lessons learned: engaging the public in budget discussions despite social distancing

On March 13, 2020 Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 infection. Two days later, the government restricted movement and meetings in a bid to contain the disease. The move was critical to preventing rapid community spread of the virus. However, the decision also threw the work of governance advocates into disarray.

Some of the more than 100 participants during the National Budget Café, held May 11-15

This is especially true for those who work by mobilizing people to engage their governments at local and national levels. IBP Kenya and partners were not exempt from the effect of the restrictions. Over the last three years, we have worked to build the capacity of community groups to advocate for services that matter to them. Two main areas of interest are water services for marginalized communities in Baringo County and primary health care in Busia County.

Together with our partners, we developed a response designed to allow us to engage virtually with budget and service-delivery processes. We were worried, and still are, about the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures adopted to manage through it to significantly and adversely affect our work. We knew we could see a reversal in the gains we have made in transparency, accountability, public participation and equity.

Transparency: In times of desperation, policymakers frequently act in ways that are opaque, justifying a lack of transparency as necessary due to the emergency. We do appreciate that decisions at times like this must be made quickly, and that governments need leeway to adjust some processes. For example, procurement of personal protective equipment may need to be single-sourced to save time. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t dilute accountability measures, key among them transparency. Yet, transparency in how decisions are made and implemented at all levels of government too often has been a casualty. Decisions on which the public should be engaged are only announced when dialogue is no longer possible.

Accountability: The national government has not performed well in either transparency or accountability, and the response to COVID-19 has not improved the situation. A case in point is the questions raised by both Parliament and the Auditor General about monies allocated for prevention and treatment of tuberculosis and malaria, construction of dams and the COVID pandemic response. It is unclear how these funds have actually been spent.

Citizen participation: At the national level, opportunities for public participation in budget and spending decisions have been poorly structured and often exclusive to the few who can make it to Nairobi. While the law is clear that mechanisms of participation should be cascaded to the lowest level possible, that has not been actualized in the 10 years since it was adopted. And the COVID-19 crisis has only created more reason to restrict people from participating. Even when opportunity for engagement is given, the time is often short and lacks clarity as to how input will be used in the decision-making processes.

Equity: A key danger is that in this period, areas of the country with sufficient provisions may receive more, while those with the greatest need are starved. Equity is the only way to ensure that every Kenyan has access to good-quality water, health care and food, the three most important needs as a result of COVID-19.

IBP Kenya is engaging partners in civil society, the private sector and government to make the case for safeguarding these four values. Our goal is to demonstrate how government and citizens can engage constructively in the current circumstances. A cornerstone strategy is a model we call the “budget-deliberation café,” which applies mechanisms for public participation at both national and county levels.

How the budget café works

The budget café is a space where citizens can collectively learn, analyze and generate proposals related to budget decisions. In regard to learning, the focus is on understanding the decisions at hand, who is responsible and what resources are required. For many participants, this provides an opportunity to understand where the government is in the budget cycle, how they can engage and who should be the focus of their “asks.” When government officials are present, they help facilitate the learning sessions by providing an insider’s view of how things work. For instance, a government pharmacist in Busia County helped participants understand how drugs are procured and delivered to a facility.

During the analysis phase, government proposals are interrogated in light of past trends in allocations and implementation. This is most effective when budget practitioners work hand in hand with sector experts, with an emphasis on use of verifiable, publicly available government data. All other data sources are used to triangulate government information. Participants conclude by discussing and prioritizing their asks and putting them into memos targeted to decision makers. Citizens send these proposals to the appropriate government offices or carry them to formal public-participation forums. We have held these events in different locations and stages of national and county budget deliberations. A key opportunity occurs when the national and county budgets are tabled on April 30 every year for debate and approval. But this year, we wondered how we were going to engage when a physical meeting was impossible. How would we bring people together to learn, analyze and propose ideas for consideration?

New ‘virtual’ budget cafés due to COVID restrictions

While we debated these questions, we identified a great opportunity for not only bringing people together, but also reaching more people. We compiled a database of all of our budget practitioners and partners across the country, then emailed each, inviting them to register for an online event via Zoom. By the deadline, registration had reached 114 persons spanning 17 budget themes/sectors—almost three times the number who signed up for past such meetings. At least 24 of the 47 counties were represented (see map).

Counties represented in the National Budget Café

The first day of the cafe focused on learning. We discussed where we were in the budget process and why it was critical for civil society to engage. Speakers emphasized the need for government to be responsive to the needs of citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable who are at greatest risk of the effects of COVID-19.

Day two highlighted budget analysis. Small teams met in Zoom breakout rooms, with support by a team from IBP Kenya, our community budget facilitators and the Institute of Public Finance Kenya. Some groups took two hours to analyze their assigned themes, while others continued for six hours. The groups focused on themes ranging from health, to education, to water, to public debt and financing.

On the third day, each of the teams presented their analysis and the proposals they wished the National Assembly to discuss.

The teams then finalized and consolidated their proposals to send to the assembly’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, which met May 15. IBP and our partners will review the report from parliament to evaluate how responsive members were to input from the public and more specifically the budget café.

Lessons for public participation in a restricted environment

We have been successful in our search for a mechanism that links local realities and voices with national decision making.

However, we know there are limitations for those without access to technology, since they cannot join the virtual meeting. We will explore options to make this a more inclusive exercise.

In addition, we learned the following:

  • Internet and smart phone connectivity are all that is required to have national reach.
  • Sign language interpreter Faith Cheptile

    Nothing should be allowed to limit the reach of the national government in facilitating public participation across the country.

  • Communities need residents who are able to understand budget processes and documents. This includes knowledge of the budget cycle, the actors and their responsibilities, and the decisions that need to be taken at each step. In turn, these “champions” can facilitate engagement of many more people from their communities. IBP Kenya has invested the time needed to train budget facilitators, thus ensuring representation from 24 counties.
  • It is possible to include persons with disabilities. We enlisted the help of a sign language interpreter to assist those with hearing impairments. This was a learning moment for us; with innovation, even persons with other challenges such as vision impairments can be included in such discussions.

Next steps

In the coming weeks, IBP is supporting its county partners as they engage with local budgets. We will continue engaging in budget implementation for the rest of this financial year and prepare for even more robust tracking of the approved 2020/21 budget.

No disabled person will be left behind in Senegal

No disabled person will be left behind in Senegal

The COVID-19 pandemic is acting like a magnifying glass—exposing in sharp relief the inequalities that often fester in relative obscurity during other times.

face masks
More than 1,000 face masks were made by people with disabilities.

In Senegal, one of those inequalities is the access of people with disabilities to even the most basic of social services, such as health care and education. Fortunately, this community has champions in Senegal: the Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities (FSAPH) and its partner, the IBP in-country team.

Even before COVID-19 hit, FSAPH had identified a major gap in the country’s social-protection network: thousands of people with disabilities were missing from the national registry of poor households used by the government to determine beneficiaries of welfare services such as transportation, health care and education. A 2010 law guaranteed people with disabilities access to these services via an “equal opportunity card”—of which more than 50,000 had been distributed in the first five years. However, the federation determined last year that no new cards had been issued since the end of 2017, due primarily to budget cuts, as well as an incomplete registry. A concerted effort by FSAPH and IBP Senegal (with the support of the Health, Population and Social Action Commission of the National Assembly) resulted in the issuance of more than 5,000 equal opportunity cards.

Senegal has been praised for its rapid response to the novel coronavirus. Senegalese health officials, trained in the “crucible” of Ebola, drafted a contingency plan in January after receiving an alert on January 10 from an international network of health agencies. The country’s relatively low death toll (41) is due in part to a strategy that includes rapid testing, an extensive system of contact tracing and a bed for every person with the virus – no matter how mild their symptoms.

But the economic fallout from the night-time curfew and other restrictions has been severe and once again, FSAPH—ever vigilant—found that people with disabilities were suffering disproportionately.

“Many of the people we serve must engage in begging to support themselves and their families,” explains Moussa Thiare, FSAPH general secretary, who is himself visually impaired. “So, their choice is to continue to beg and risk their health or stay inside and lose their income. Crises always seem to create or at least exacerbate existing inequalities.”

FSAPH created a mechanism for monitoring and evaluating the needs of disabled people and to advocate for them with the Ministry of Community Development and Social and Territorial Equity. A key success has been assuring that a representative from the organization is included in the national and regional coordinating bodies for the COVID-19 response. FSAPH acts both as a collaborator with the government and as a watchdog. The team participates in local and national COVID- 19 committees, documents shortcomings and advocates with relevant authorities for immediate action, via mass media campaigns and constant engagement with decisionmakers.

In fact, the FASPH Monitoring Committee and another IBP partner, ONG 3D, convened a press conference May 21, 2020 to publicize the challenges encountered by people with disabilities during the pandemic, as well as to highlight their contributions to the fight. One FASPH office was made available as a treatment center, and several people with disabilities made protective face masks. One woman made 500 masks for FASPH as well as many more for other organizations.“This is important; most of the time, persons with disabilities are treated like they can’t do anything,” Moussa notes. “But they just need support and opportunity; then they can prove their competence.”

One of the women who made face masks.

Although events are limited to no more than 10 people, the press conference was broadcast over TV. A day later, the Ministry of Community Development and Social Equity announced that an additional 55,000 households with disabled people would be added to the registry of poor people and receive assistance, including those with individuals being treated for leprosy.

“If it were not for IBP (which provides funding and technical support), we would have been left behind in the COVID-19 response,” notes Moussa. “Very often, too often, the rights of minority groups are neglected during crises.”

When needed, FSAPH fills urgent gaps with its own resources. For example, it distributes hand sanitizer and disinfectants to those who must go out. Awareness-building thus also has become vital, to assure that its constituents know how and when to use those supplies, as well as other ways to protect themselves.

Moussa points out that before FSAPH got involved, the government did not cater to the hearing-impaired when it gave its daily COVID-19 briefings. Now, however, sign-language interpretation has been added.

Another example: it’s very difficult for persons who are visually impaired, like Moussa, to practice physical distancing. A guide is needed, often at cost. FSAPH helps provide such services.

“People with disabilities have really seen their dependence on others increase, which makes us feel so much more vulnerable,” explains Moussa. “The restrictions on going out and earning an income makes it much harder to obtain food, for instance, and health care.”

As a result of the efforts of FSAPH, supported by IBP, the minister of community development and social and territorial equity has officially committed to ensuring that all equal opportunity card holders are included in the national registry for poor households and receive COVID-19 food assistance and other social-protection programs. In addition, Senegal’s president has instructed the Minister of Community Development to include services for almost 50,000 people with disabilities in the COVID-19 budget.

“This is a critical step toward enhancing government responsiveness and ensuring that vulnerable groups occupy accountability spaces,” says Moussa. He adds that the organization has worked to engage a large number of partners in the push for social change. As an example, he cites an organization of women who focus on access to health care. They are not doctors or nurses, but part of society. They are women whose leadership is recognized by the community. Another example are religious leaders.

“We believe in taking the lead to tackle our problems. We are part of society, and so we work broadly across it,” he notes.