Governments’ budgets are fundamentally about people’s human rights. Budgets are the central means by which governments can help realize their people’s access to quality education, decent health care services, a safe working environment, potable water, and other opportunities, and goods and services essential for people to live their lives with dignity.
Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) sets out what governments are obligated to do to help realize those rights:
- Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to guarantee that the rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
This handbook, focused on civil society budget work, explores what “achieving progressively,” “to the maximum of its available resources,” and “without discrimination” mean for the way that governments should raise, allocate, and spend their budgets so as to best realize people’s human rights. It is, primarily, a resource for civil society organizations, human rights commissions, and even legislators, to hold governments to account for their human rights obligations.
This handbook is divided into a set of booklets organized by the three themes of progressive realization, non-discrimination, and maximum available resources. These booklets are available for individual download below. The handbook can also be downloaded in its entirety.
Governments have an obligation to progressively realize economic and social rights. Monitoring and analyzing a government’s budget can be a helpful tool for assessing whether a government is doing this. Significant expansion in the enjoyment of a specific right, such as education or health, usually requires the devotion of added resources from the budget but governments often claim that they do not have the necessary resources. Budget analysis can evaluate the validity of this claim. The obligation of progressive realization also means that governments must not take steps backwards, steps that deprive people of their existing enjoyment of a right. Budget analysis can help spot cuts in a budget that result in the discontinuation or shrinking of an essential rights-related program. The section of the handbook on progressive realization summarizes international law related to this obligation as it affects governments’ budgets, and includes three case studies that explore how groups have used budget work to assess progressive realization.
- Progressive Realization
- Retrogression Due to Tax Reforms
- Budget Increases and Meeting the Obligation of Progressive Realization
- Benefits of Increased Expenditures Not Reaching the Most Vulnerable
Most governments’ budgets are fraught with instances of discrimination. The varying ways governments raise revenue (for example, through income taxes or sales taxes) impact disparate groups of people differently, often disproportionately burdening the poor. Similarly, governments’ expenditures can benefit certain groups while disadvantaging others. Paradoxically, those disadvantaged often include women and children, ethnic minorities, and the disabled and rural communities; groups who need government support the most. The budget can at the same time be used to right long-standing wrongs when governments direct resources to historically disadvantaged groups to enable them to close the gap with their compatriots. The section of the handbook on non-discrimination summarizes international law on this obligation specifically as it relates to governments’ budgets, and includes four case studies that explore a few of the myriad ways discrimination can show up in budgets.
- Discrimination in Allocations and Spending on the Basis of Geography
- Failure to Allocate and Spend Funds Specially Designated to Counter the Lingering Effects of Historic Discrimination
- Discriminatory Allocations and Expenditures on the Basis of Socio-Economic Status
- Discriminatory Expenditures Based on Health Status
Maximum Available Resources
The obligation on governments to use the maximum of available resources to realize economic and social rights has multidimensional relevance for the government’s budget. It says that governments should raise as much revenue from domestic (and if necessary, international) sources as is financially viable in both the short and long-term in order to maximize the resources available to realize human rights. On the expenditure side it means that governments should prioritize spending on economic and social rights, and should ensure that the spending it does devote to rights-related areas are used efficiently and effectively to advance rights. Governments should not underspend funds that have been allocated to this end, they should not waste those funds by purchasing unessential goods and services, and should not allow the illicit diversion of funds directed to these areas. The section of the handbook on use of maximum available resources summarizes international law related to this obligation, and includes three case studies which illustrate a few of the ways this obligation should shape and direct the implementation of a government’s budget.
- The Use of Maximum Available Resources
- Expenditures on Non-Essential Items
- Under-Expenditure Resulting from Barriers to Access and Lack of Governmental Capacity
- Expenditures on Items That are Not Effective in Guaranteeing Rights
This handbook has been developed by the Article 2 Project, a working group housed first at the Partnership Initiative of the International Budget Partnership (IBP), and then at the Global Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability and Participation. It is a joint publication of the International Budget Partnership, Global Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability and Participation, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, Fundar, Instituto de Estudos Socio-Economicos, Public Service Accountability Monitor, Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos, and the International Human Rights Internship Program.
Many people and organizations played a role in nurturing the development of this handbook, taking part in numerous discussions and reflections over the course of four years. The core group that drove the “Article 2 Working Group” and defined its tasks comprised:
- Martín Sigal and Gustavo Maurino, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, Argentina;
- Jorge Santos and Ricardo Zepeda, Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos, Guatemala;
- Gabriel Lara, Diego de la Mora, Mariana Pérez and Miguel Pulido, Fundar -Centro de Análisis e Investigación, Mexico;
- Shaamela Cassiem, Ravi Duggal, and Albert van Zyl, International Budget Partnership;
- Denisse Wolfenzon, International Human Rights Internship Program;
- Iara Pietricovsky and Alexandre Ciconello, Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos, Brazil; and
- Jay Kruuse and Daygan Eagar, Public Service Accountability Monitor, South Africa.
Other organizations participated at meetings and provided information, examples, comments and opinions: CAD-Mali; Center for Economic and Social Rights, Spain; Grupo Faro, Ecuador; HakiElimu and Sikika, Tanzania; Inisiatif, Indonesia; the Institute for Economic Affairs, Kenya; the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, Samarthan and the Centre for Budget Governance and Accountability, India; Sonora Ciudadana, Mexico; SEND Foundation, Ghana; and the Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa.
Prof. Sanjeev Khagram directed a task force at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, that researched the content and meaning of ICESCR’s article 2. Invaluable input was offered by Virginia Bras Gomes, Geoff and Debbie Budlender, Susan Randolph, Murray Petrie, Roberto Bissio, Christian Gruenberg, Paolo de Renzio and Varun Gauri. Alfonso Barragués, a tireless ally, pushed for a collaboration with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on guidelines for governments, which are currently under review.
Last but not least, we want to express our gratitude to the team involved in making this handbook a visually beautiful resource: Marco Partida, lead designer; Víctor García, artwork; and Rocío Pérez, frame/box.
Without the spirited collaboration of these individuals and organizations and without their unflinching commitment to the realization of human rights, our task of producing this handbook would not only have been much less enjoyable; it would have been, quite simply, impossible.