The Vaccine against COVID-risk: Open Budgets, Open Response, Open Recovery

This post also appears on the Open Government Partnership website.

There’s a damaging rumor doing the rounds in Kibera, Nairobi’s massive informal settlement: that COVID-19 is a fabrication invented by the country’s elite to raise money from the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) to pay off the elite’s debts. It is dangerously wrong, but its origins understandable when you consider – based on their experience, these citizens have little confidence that money for their government will flow into health or humanitarian services where they live.

 width=The good news is that there’s a vaccine to protect against the risk of such rumors, and the financial mismanagement they arise from: openness, which enables journalists, civil society, and citizens to “follow the money.” Openness promotes government financial accountability, improves service delivery and rebuilds civic trust.

To that end, the Open Budget Survey (OBS), launched just over a week ago, provides both a warning and a call to action. It highlights how only 31 of the 117 surveyed countries have sufficient levels of budget transparency according to the basic minimum standards set in accordance with international norms. This means that three-quarters of surveyed countries do not. Governments often fail to publish key budget documents, which should clearly explain budget policies, decisions and outcomes. Governments release more information during the formulation and approval stage of their budget process than they do on implementation, which undermines government accountability for spending the budget.

A closer look at the health and education budgets in 28 of the countries surveyed finds that they lack the kinds of information needed to monitor service delivery. Global debt levels are spiraling, but budgets are missing details on the levels, risks, and sustainability of public debt. Many organizations are now focused on tax equity and increasing revenues, but few countries provide detailed reporting on tax expenditures – the revenue lost from breaks or exemptions given to business or individuals.

As an experienced campaigner I’m a little worried to quote some of the OBS findings – for fear they’ll be abused by the callous to justify inaction on funding the COVID-19 fight. Nativist populists will use any data they can about wastage overseas to stop funding the global fight against poverty and disease. But when we don’t honestly discuss these risks, we are ourselves increasing the long-term risk and erosion of precious public trust. I’ve found, in campaign after campaign, that when it’s time to push for a major global financing mechanism, campaigners do not press the point about the importance of open budgets, contracts and government for fear it will scare away funds. We must move past that fear and focus on both getting the necessary funds and ensuring they’re used accountably. In truth we have made strong progress on transparency and accountability as part of campaigns for debt relief, aid and increased domestic taxation to fund sustainable development. But this Open Budget Survey shows we have much further to go.

A New DATA Deal

How fiscal transparency and accountability practices should be embedded in all COVID-19-related public finance activities, including raising and managing debt, is well covered here by the International Budget Partnership’s most recent blog, “A Call to Action on Open Budgets during the COVID-19 Response,” and the details of how the openness of response and recovery plans builds trust and improves results is well addressed in the Open Government Partnership’s report “Open Response, Open Recovery: Building Trust as the Antidote to COVID-19.”

If I may crudely summarize these arguments: we need a new sustainable development finance deal, one which may sound superficially familiar to older campaigners: to Drop the Debt payments, increase Assistance, increase progressive Taxation – and in a parallel two-step partnership campaign for increased Democracy, Accountability and Transparency. Citizens within developing countries must be able to scrutinize financing through open processes. If they can’t, financing can’t flow in confidence, corruption grows, trust ebbs.

The key thing about this partnership deal is that the partnership conditions are not imposed by policy makers in D.C. or London on the rest of the world. These conditions are demanded by the citizens of developing and emerging economies, themselves, upon their governments and upon global financing mechanisms and development partners. These issues aren’t just in Africa or the developing world. Citizens within OECD societies and traditional donor nations must be more vigilant at home for this deal – and fight for open accountable financing and government domestically, too. Globally, we will all need to scrutinize, through open budgets, to see where COVID-19 funds are coming from, how far they come at the expense of cutting other lifesaving accounts, and how often they truly arrive where needed. This is where the 78 member countries of the OGP – which span all regions and income levels – can lead by example.

The latest technologies can help us digitally deliver this partnership. Affordable mobile phones and airtime, connectivity, and the latest statistical survey tools, are driving new forms of local accountability, ground truthing at the grassroots the findings of satellite and big data analytics. And it’s key not just to beating COVID-19, but to leaving no one behind and achieving all the SDGs by 2030.

For example, the recently formed #FollowtheCOVID19Money network, formed by youth ground truth networks across Africa, should be scaled and strengthened to scrutinize both COVID-19 and wider health and sustainable development funds. 150 civil society groups across Africa recently met virtually demanding civic space to help scrutinize these emergency resource flows. It has been inspiring to partner with these fast-moving movements.

So let’s campaign like crazy for all the cash we can find, for the COVID-19 vaccine diagnostics therapies and frontline health-workers who must deliver these; let’s fight like heck for the humanitarian and economic response plans’ full financing, and ensure all these funds are additional and not carved from other essential life-saving programs; but let’s equally, at the same time, fight to ensure these funds flow through open contracts, open budget and open government through to the “last mile” of service delivery. If we do this, we won’t just beat COVID-19 – we will build the global social capital and effective networks needed to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Let’s apply that greatest vaccine of all: openness, to build up our strongest immune response: trust, and all the solidarity that comes with it.

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