How to build budget transparency, accountability and participation in fragile states?

According to recent research by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) most of the world’s poor will be living in fragile and conflict-affected states (FRACAS, pinching Duncan Green’s acronym) by 2015. It is, therefore, becoming even more urgent to figure out the puzzle of how to build budget transparency, accountability and participation in such states.

Another study by the World Bank (WB) and ODI (don’t they ever sleep?)  presents lessons from public finance management (PFM) reforms in eight such FRACAS. The good news is that they find that some reform is indeed possible. Anecdotal evidence from International Budget Partnership’s own work in places like Cambodia, Mali and Chad, support this finding. The bad news of  the WB and ODI research is that most of the successful reforms were technical in nature (such as the introduction of treasury single accounts or an improved chart of accounts). Further bad news is that these reforms did not improve government service delivery. Even worse news is that PFM reforms designed to support budget planning and budget accountability were generally not successful.

Where do we go from here?

To find out, I did a quick tour of recent research on government accountability in FRACAS (mostly accessed through the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre’s excellent document library). This post summarizes what I found, tries to figure out what it means for budget transparency, accountability and participation and then outlines how the IBP is testing these ideas in Tunis and Egypt.

What do we know about building accountability in FRACAS?

I was relieved that the research shows that it is possible to build accountability in FRACAS. Unsurprisingly, this is done through social and political, rather than through purely technical, measures. In summary, here is what the research says:

  • An accountability relationship between government and citizens requires a minimum of social capital that doesn’t exist in most FRACAS. The first steps, therefore, should be to rebuild trust between government and the people.
  • Such trust is best built through constructing inclusive pacts between governments and civil society institutions to identify shared priorities and oversee key programs.
  • Even these initial steps require entry points where some basic trust still exists. A few authors suggest that such entry points are more often found at local rather than national level.
  • Faith in these transitional arrangements is itself fragile and needs to be supported by early results in the form of government service delivery – something like the famous ‘democratic dividend’.

Can one build budget transparency, participation, and accountability in FRACAS?

Translating this general accountability research into the public finance sphere suggest  the following:

  • Right from the start, top-down PFM reforms should be supported by bottom-up, citizen-inclusive efforts to build transparency and accountability. Some of these processes may need to be exploratory and done in preparation for tougher accountability work, but without it, PFM reforms may fail.
  • Top-down technical reforms may be essential to basic state building in FRACAS, but the accountability processes that are needed to support them, are best be built from the bottom up.
  • In many FRACAS resource allocation lies at the root of the conflict. Until questions of who gets what are addressed in an acceptable way, trust may remain an illusive prize. In order to  build trust and move ahead, these questions should be addressed early in the reform process.
  • Without some service delivery benefit, stakeholders are likely to lose faith in more technical reform processes. Centralized technical reforms (which sometimes do not impact on service delivery), should therefore be coupled with line ministry and local level reforms that are more likely to result in service delivery improvements.

An opportunity amidst the crisis?

Rather than just posing a challenge, post-conflict situations also present a major opportunity to build trust and open public finance management systems. The crisis in FRACAS can present unique opportunities for reform that fast-track through years of red tape and bureaucratic process. For example, the constitution-making process in Egypt and Tunisia presents  historic opportunity to insert budget transparency and participation rules into the fundamental law.

The IBP is piloting some of these ideas in Egypt and Tunisia. We are working with government, civil society, academia, and media to build connections and capacity within and between these groups. In this way we hope to increase attention to PFM and accountability early on in the transition before bad habits re-assert themselves.  More detail in future posts.

APPENDIX: The rest of this post is a summary of research about FRACAS and accountability that I found on the web

Trust precedes accountability

Duncan Green of Oxfam argues that in FRACAS it may be premature to support citizen demand for accountability. He argues that “the state may simply lack the capacity to deliver, rather than the will, while citizens may have had such a negative previous experience of the state that all they want is to be left alone.” For this reason, he counsels that initial efforts to establish accountability should focus on building legitimacy, trust, and the social contract between citizens and state as a prerequisite to building accountability. His argument is supported by Henriette von Kaltenborn-Stachau’s research that argues that the lack of public trust, societal fragmentation, and exclusion in post-conflict situations contribute to  “particular public sphere challenges that are related to the prevalence of fear, rumours and uncertainty caused by disempowerment and loss of livelihoods.“

This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, though. As the GSDRC page on accountability in fragile states points out, “problematic citizen-state relations are considered to be both a cause and consequence of violent conflict.” If the problem in FRACAS is a lack of trust between citizens and the state, it may be trite and even circular reasoning to suggest that the solution lies with building trust between citizens and the state. Exactly how are FRACAS supposed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

Start at local level?

Research by Rosalind Eyben and Sarah Ladbury for IDS argues that civic participation often grows up around local, rather than national,  issues. While citizens may have withdrawn from national political life because of conflict, they may still be engaged at the local level around more immediate bread and butter issues (what some call “partial citizenship”). They argue that efforts to build participation and accountability, therefore, should start with local associations and focus on issues of local service delivery. In a recent post on the Fragile State Resource Center Blog, Seth Kaplan supports these claims when he argues that what he calls “social cohesion” can best be restored from the local level up.

While this may be a slight idealization of “the local,” their point that efforts to rebuild trust should start where there is still some trace of a relationship between citizens and government (what McLean-Hilker et al call “entry points”) is fair — whether that is at the local or national level. When even local politics are riven by conflict and mistrust, argues Pearce, civil society organizations, such as churches and NGOs, can “keep alive the participatory space” by distributing basic information about violence and resources.

Involve citizens from the start, deliver benefit from the start

The 2011 World Development Report argues that two characteristics mark successful transitions in FRACAS. First, the creation of coalitions of government, churches, and civil society that are “inclusive-enough.” The role of churches and CSOs in these coalitions is not just to signal inclusiveness but also to push for deeper institutional reform. The second is that the government needs to deliver early results so that a skeptical population can gain faith in the democratic process. Galtung and Tisné discuss examples from eight post-conflict states to show that CSOs can and should be involved in this process from the earliest stages. While some of this process can be driven by donors and the international community, such top-down efforts need to be supported by social accountability mechanisms that are better suited to the exigencies of a post-war context.

UNDESA’s note on service delivery in post-conflict situations has a few things to say about what such service delivery should look like, but doesn’t say much about how to do it. While some have been critical of  Paul Collier’s idea of  Independent Service Authorities, it does provide some answer to the riddle of how to build confidence in reform efforts through service delivery in low-capacity contexts.

Careful of the media

A potentially important buttress to reform efforts is the media. In a  World Bank policy brief, Kalathil, Langlois and Kaplan argue that the media can enable citizens to engage in dialogue and serve as platforms for debate and oversight.  As some of the IBP’s own impact case studies show, the media can however also be deeply divisive and may be perceived as a threat by  governments of FRACAS that are dependent on donors and the international community for funding, security etc.

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