The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the plans of governments, businesses and households around the world. The same is true for civil society organizations, including our global network of groups committed to budget-related advocacy. Ways of working have had to shift, and all of us have seen sudden adjustments in government fiscal and monetary policies that require us to rethink our focus.
Our partners have demonstrated a nimble response to the twin health and economic crises. As reports come in from the field, we have identified four areas of work in which partners are engaging: demanding transparency in the spending of new relief funds, promoting greater equity and inclusion in governments’ policy responses, advocating for the expansion or introduction of cash-transfer programs to support incomes, and encouraging more progressive taxation to fund the response (and investments in health and social security more broadly).
Transparency of relief funds. While many governments have introduced new or expanded policies to support the economy broadly, as well as programs for those living in poverty, small businesses and so on, they typically have not offered substantial detail on how these programs are supposed to work, how they target the intended beneficiaries or how they are to be financed. In some cases, new, off-budget funds are being set up (such as in India and Kenya), but the flow of resources in and out is opaque.
Partners have responded by demanding greater transparency and attempting to share information themselves. In Indonesia, a civil society coalition—including the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency, Indonesian Corruption Watch, Transparency International Indonesia and Indonesia Budget Center—explained in a public policy brief the need for a comprehensive and unified response to the pandemic that guarantees transparency and accountability in the use of public resources.
In Nigeria, BudgIT created the CovidFundTracka, a website that lists donations given to the federal and state governments by both private and public organizations. Likewise, SEND West Africa designed a digital hub that tracks government and CSO responses to the crisis. Each week, SEND compiles government reports regarding the COVID-19 response for different sectors, like agriculture. In Ecuador, Grupo FARO launched an initiative to “take the pulse of the economy during the pandemic,” designed to keep the public informed on how the government is responding to COVID-19. The site includes analysis of new/proposed policies and their financial implications.
More inclusive government responses. While many governments have introduced policies targeting the vulnerable, these are either seen as inadequate or they have not been fully implemented. Partners have highlighted the special needs of different groups, requested new or improved policies to address them, and tried to involve vulnerable groups in oversight.
- ACIJ (Argentina) is promoting actions to address structural human rights problems that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, like access to basic necessities for vulnerable populations. A special web page highlights ACIJ’s work in defense of groups like the homeless, children and people with disabilities.
- In India, the National Coalition for Dalit Human Rights is calling for support for informal workers and manual scavengers through expansion of existing schemes or creation of new ones. It has also launched the app WeClaim to assist marginalized communities in securing state entitlements.
- The Senegalese Federation of Disability Associations (FASPH) is urging the government to pay special attention to the needs of people with disabilities and are included in the oversight committee monitoring the response. Besides advocating on their behalf, FASPH is also disseminating information on the pandemic and distributing sanitation and food kits to people with disabilities.
- In a joint statement signed by 30 civil society organizations in the Philippines, Action for Economic Reforms condemned the government’s decision to limit the number of beneficiaries of emergency cash relief, calling it unlawful and harmful. The organization wants the government to ensure relief is provided to all 18 million low-income households eligible under the law.
Expanded and properly targeted income support. There is widespread advocacy by partners to either expand existing cash-transfer schemes, better implement them or introduce new ones. In some cases, there is already a push for these programs to be converted into permanent basic-income programs.
- INESC (Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, Brazil) led a successful campaign for an emergency basic income that will support millions of low-income Brazilians. The campaign included 160 national civil society organizations and garnered half a million signatures in support. Although the support is temporary, there have been growing calls in the region to create a permanent universal basic income, such as by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. In Central America, ICEFI (Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies) has also advocated for more robust social protection, including a guaranteed basic income, at least for the working age population (from 15 years old).
- A press release from three Indonesian civil society organizations, including SEKNAS-FITRA, applauded the government’s cash-assistance measures, but stressed the importance of accelerating disbursement and ensuring proper targeting, thus benefiting migrant workers as well.
- Center for Public Integrity (Mozambique) proposed a set of recommendations that would allow low-income people to safely self-isolate. Included among the proposals is emergency income support and food aid for informal workers, who make up 88 percent of the working population.
- Sbilanciamoci (Italy) published a public petition with 10 points of action to ensure a healthy, just and sustainable country. Among its proposals, Sbilanciamoci urges the establishment of a permanent minimum income.
More progressive tax systems. A number of partners are advocating for wealth taxes or enhanced income taxes to help pay for the cost of programs. Some partners have also called for tax relief for lower- and middle-income groups and small businesses.
- The Initiative for Human Rights Principles in Fiscal Policy, comprised of six civil society organizations in Latin America (including several IBP partners), released a statement calling for governments and other stakeholders in the region to immediately adopt redistributive fiscal policies that guarantee rights and reduce inequalities. The coalition’s proposals include taxes on wealth and corporate revenues from sectors that benefit from the pandemic, consultation with international financial institutions to restructure or cancel foreign debt, and implementation of policies that reduce tax avoidance and evasion.
- FEMNET (Kenya) joined a collective of organizations to launch a website advocating principles to ensure “a just and resilient recovery” that protects human rights and gender equality. These principles include demands for financial transaction and wealth taxes, as well as debt relief.
- CBGA (Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, India) urges governments to raise revenues to adequately respond to the pandemic by eliminating tax avoidance and evasion and pursuing progressive tax policies. On May 28, CBGA and other stakeholders participated in a virtual conference on this topic.
- Social Justice Ireland released a report with recommendations to make the tax code more progressive and raise revenues through measures like a minimum effective corporate tax rate, refundable tax credits and a windfall gains tax.
*Jason Lakin is a senior fellow at IBP and Guillermo Herrera is the program coordinator for IBP’s Addressing Credibility Project.