Citizen budget monitoring: Under cover agents for sustainable budgets

This is the fourth part in our series on citizen impact on government budgets. Click here to read part 3.

A popular stereotype of civil society campaigns is that they are run by fiscally irresponsible activists who demand that governments spend large amounts of money that they don’t have, to introduce new social programs that will realize socio-economic rights, fund the Millennium Development Goals, or Make Poverty History.

Resistance to these campaigns is often based on the belief that civil society organizations (CSOs) will ‘bust the budget’ by pushing for unaffordable and unsustainable programs. While it is true that, in some cases, CSOs attempt to get governments to implement new programs, more often they are often simply trying to get governments to honor programs or policies that the government has already committed to.

By way of illustration, out of seven recent International Budget Partnership case studies of CSO campaigns, six of the cases were examples of CSOs simply trying to get governments to implement programs or budgets that they had already committed to. In the one case where this did not apply – the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) efforts to get the South African government to roll out an HIV/AIDS strategy – TAC was able to prove that the programs it was pushing for would actually save the government money in the medium to long term.

In the six remaining cases, the agenda had already been set by the government concerned. In India, for example, the government already had a poverty alleviation program in place (NREGA), but due to corruption and inefficiency it was not as effective as it should have been. An organization called Samarthan helped the government to better implement NREGA by making people more aware of what their rights were under the program and by using budget tracking to demonstrate where the weaknesses in the system were.

In Argentina, the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ), took the government of Buenos Aires to court when it failed to provide constitutionally mandated early education for all the children in the city. By proving that the government had been consistently underspending the budget allocated to the construction and maintenance of school facilities, ACIJ was able to demonstrate that, despite the ability to do so, the government was not honoring its obligations. In another example, a coalition of CSOs in South Africa persuaded the government to adjust the Child Support Grant for inflation after they demonstrated that the grant had, decreased  in real terms since it was first introduced.

In each of the abovementioned examples, the people who needed it most were being let down by their governments, and the interventions by the CSOs simply ensured that the governments met their obligations. Furthermore, the fact that many of these CSOs used sophisticated budget monitoring techniques to demonstrate the discrepancies between what the government promised and what it was actually doing, demonstrates that CSOs are not the budget-illiterate organizations that many perceive them to be.

Some may argue that CSO campaigns amplify fiscally irresponsible commitments already made by governments and that real government priorities are determined by the trade-offs built into the budget process. But in most of the campaigns that these case studies considered, the cause of the problem was under and misspending, not a lack of resources.  CSO budget monitoring often reveal such inefficiency and shows how available resources can be applied towards the realization of policy commitments. Ironically, instead of unsustainable budget binges, CSOs and community members often contribute to more accountable and responsible spending. Those concerned with sustainable public spending should embrace these campaigns.

This post was written by Rebekah Kendal and Albert van Zyl. Click here to read more case studies of how citizen budget monitoring has improved government service delivery.

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