The 4.5 million people living in New Zealand have access to the most extensive amount of budget information in the world, according to the latest results of the Open Budget Survey. But how are the rest of the world’s 7 billion people doing? Not nearly as well unfortunately: 68 percent of the world’s population live in countries that fail to publish enough budget information for them to understand how public finances are being managed.
So what does this look like on a global scale? The map below shows how the world would look if land area were scaled by population size, with the colors indicating the amount of budget information people have access to.
China’s already significant landmass grows larger still when scaled by population. Unfortunately, the dark red shading indicates that its 1.4 billion people remain largely in the dark on how the government is managing the country’s USD 2.2 trillion budget. Despite a decade of rapid economic growth and an ever expanding budget, its score of 14 out of 100 on the Open Budget Index (pdf) has changed very little. Highly populated countries like Vietnam and Egypt likewise also make scant budget information available to the public. Vietnam’s transparency score has largely remained the same over the years, whereas Egypt’s score fell dramatically in 2010 and has yet to bounce back to levels achieved in the past.
South Asia – a big yellow blob on the map – is home to almost 1 in 4 of the world’s people. Yellow indicates scores of between 40 and 60, meaning governments are providing limited amounts of budget information to the public. Not terrible, but not enough to provide a full picture of how governments are managing public money, and certainly not enough for citizens to hold their government accountable. Worryingly, transparency in South Asia seems to be regressing: India’s score fell from 68 to 46; Pakistan’s from 58 to 43; and Sri Lanka’s from 46 to 39.
But there are reasons for optimism. South Africa, the fifth most populous country in Africa, has one of the most transparent national budgets in world. Highly populated Brazil, the Philippines, and Russia make substantial amounts information available to the public. (Though an unusually large share of public money in Russia is spent outside the national budget, so the government still has a long way to go to being truly open to the public.)
As the global report (pdf) points out, a concerning trend is that many countries seem to get stuck at these middling levels of budget transparency. Part of reason may be the relative ease in which governments can improve…up to a certain point. Most of the worst performers can make dramatic progress simply by publishing the budget documents they already produce. Those doing better, however, need to go through the likely more difficult process of improving the comprehensiveness of their budget documents.
The world is making gradual progress on budget transparency, but we still have a long way to go to get to New Zealand.