When the Covid pandemic broke in early 2020, there was near unanimous consent that a crisis of this magnitude required governments to act boldly and swiftly to meet the needs of their people. By the end of 2020, governments mobilized a staggering $14 trillion in fiscal policy responses of different types.
While welcoming these responses, a chorus of voices, including ours, urged governments to put in place the transparency and accountability arrangements necessary to ensure that the massive resources being mobilized did not go to waste. Responding to the crisis in an open and accountable manner was a way for governments to restore public trust and build back better.
Working with civil society researchers in 120 countries, we documented the introduction of almost 400 emergency fiscal policy packages from March to September 2020 and assessed the largest or most important of these packages in each country.
Our assessment shows that more than two-thirds of surveyed governments are falling short of managing their fiscal responses in a transparent and accountable manner, thereby jeopardizing the effectiveness and impact of their responses to the crisis (Table of Results).
These shortcuts and limitations are neither necessary nor inevitable. Many countries across regions and incomes have chosen a different path. An urgent and speedy response does not have to come at the expense of accountability. There are three key findings in our COVID accountability report.
1. Governments have failed to adopt key measures to enhance accountability that many voices had demanded when governments began to announce their relief packages.
- Only in about a quarter of countries assessed were auditors able to produce and publish audit reports on Covid fiscal packages before the end of 2020.
- About half of the governments surveyed published little information on the implementation of policy initiatives.
- Approximately two thirds of surveyed countries failed to follow transparent procurement procedures.
Despite this, some countries have shown a different way is possible. For example:
- Paraguay has a one-stop-shop site that publishes information on all pandemic-related procurement.
- In Jamaica, the Auditor General published three concurrent audit reviews of the government’s cash transfer program, and the Ministry of Finance worked closely with the national audit office to follow up on audit recommendations.
- Recognizing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, Canada, the Philippines and Sweden published a Gender Impact Assessment of their COVID-19 response. And in Togo, in a short period of 10 days, the government established a transparent platform for a cash transfer program that prioritized women.
2. The role of legislatures has been limited during the pandemic.
In almost half the countries in our assessment, governments introduced fiscal policy measures through executive decrees, side-stepping normal legislative and approval processes and preventing public debate. Not surprisingly, countries that bypassed their legislatures were also generally less transparent in their Covid-related spending.
Again, some countries showed that a better way is possible. For example:
- In Nepal, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee investigated irregularities in procuring medical equipment and supplies to hold to account those responsible for these failures.
- In the Philippines, weekly reports on COVID-19 response actions are sent to a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee that oversees implementation.
3. Public participation in the formulation and execution of COVID policy responses is virtually non-existent.
This has not only excluded the public from having a voice in decisions on priority-setting during the pandemic but it has also deprived governments of inputs which could greatly improve the effectiveness of their actions. Only 10 out of 120 countries made any meaningful efforts at engaging with their populations in the design and oversight of relief monies.
Even as governments largely kept the public at bay, civil society groups have been active in mobilizing local communities and amplifying their needs to government. One of the most successful examples of civil society and government collaboration is the Asivikelane initiative in South Africa which is giving an active voice to informal settlement residents in major cities who are faced with severe basic service shortages during the crisis. Through targeted advocacy and campaigns, the initiative has already secured improved access to water, sanitation and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than one million people.
There are practical steps governments and donors can take to bolster accountability as part of the ongoing response and to build back better.
- Governments can adopt reforms now such as publishing monthly progress report and disclosing procurement details in open formats. They can plus up resources for national auditors to conduct expedited audits and take remedial measures in response to their reports. They can take actions to restore legislative oversight. Further, they can also leverage existing mechanisms in the executive, legislatures and within national audit offices to facilitate citizen participation in the formulation, approval and execution of new Covid-related packages.
- Over the long-term, governments can strengthen systems in the annual budget cycle to be better prepared for future crises. These include reforming legal and regulatory frameworks to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas such as procurement, oversight and participation. They can also integrate innovations that emerged from this crisis, such as providing user-centered information.
- The international donor community can play an important role in advancing accountability norms in emergency spending. As part of their assistance, donors should urge and support country-led efforts to publish more information about what governments are spending and its impacts and to facilitate oversight by legislatures, auditors and citizens.
The COVID crisis is far from over. We must keep mobilizing resources for the global COVID response, including filling the funding gap for COVAX to ensure everyone has equitable access to vaccines. But if we are serious about equity and justice, we must simultaneously get serious about accountability. This is about ensuring assistance reaches those who need it most. When governments do not deliver as promised, underserved communities bear the brunt.