Nepal | October 19, 2019

Budget transparency Citizens kept in the dark

Jim Lobe

The vast majority of the world’s:

governments effectively deny citizens basic information they need to understand how public monies are being spent, according to a new report released in Washington by the International Budget Partnership (IBP), a Washington-based project that works with civil society groups to promote government transparency and improve accountability. Of the 85 countries surveyed by the IBP, only five governments provided what the study called “extensive” information about their budgets, while another dozen made “significant” information available to their publics. Best performers – those with scores over 81 on a 100-point scale – included Britain, South Africa, France, New Zealand and the United States, in descending order.

But 68 of the countries — or 80 per cent — do not provide the public with comprehensive, timely and useful information that citizens need to understand, participate and monitor the use of public funds, according to the “Open Budget Index” designed by IBP to measure budget transparency. And nearly half of the countries provided so little information publicly as to make it virtually impossible to uncover waste, gross mismanagement, or corruption. The worst performers – those scoring zero or one on the scale – include Sao Tome e Principe, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria, according to the index.

“Overall, the state of budget transparency around the world is deplorable,” the 55-page report found. “In most of the countries surveyed the public does not have access to the comprehensive and timely information needed to participate meaningfully in the budget process and to hold government to account.” “This lack of transparency encourages inappropriate, wasteful, and corrupt spending and – because it shuts the public out of decision making – reduces the legitimacy and impact of anti-poverty initiatives,” among other government programmes, according to the report, entitled “Open Budgets. Transform Lives.” The survey found that more developed countries tended to offer a higher degree of transparency in their budgetary practices than less developed countries, although there were significant exceptions.

Not only did South Africa rank second among all countries surveyed, but Brazil took eighth place, just behind Norway and Sweden. Peru, Sri Lanka, Botswana, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and India were also ranked among the top 20. “The high, good, and poor performers include low, medium, and high-income countries,” said Warren Krafchik, the IBP director. “In other words, being poor or being dependent on aid or oil and gas revenues is not a sufficient excuse to fail to provide adequate budget transparency.” The survey also found that many poor countries that currently provide insufficient information to their publics are capable of doing so at little or no cost because they already produce that information for their aid donors or for internal purposes.

“All these countries have to do is put

the information they already have available on the internet,” he said. “The problem is not really the production of information or the capacity to produce it. The problem is the political willingness by the governments to disseminate that information to their publics,” he added.

Indeed, he said, many countries have already taken steps to improve their performance, compared to two years ago when the IBP produced its first survey. Among them were Croatia and Bulgaria, whose accession to membership in the European Union (EU) required them to increase transparency; Sri Lanka and Kenya, where new governments proved responsive to demands reforms by civil society groups; and Egypt, where a new constitutional amendment boosted the budgetary powers of parliament.

“Whether the parliament will be able to use those powers effectively or not remains to be seen,” Krafchik said about the constitutional change in Egypt, whose government has long been regarded as both corrupt and authoritarian. The survey is based on a detailed questionnaire of more than 120 questions focused on the contents and timeliness of eight key budget documents that all governments should issue, according to generally accepted good-practice criteria developed by multilateral organisations, such as the World Bank.

The report called for governments not only to publish more information about their budgets, but to also produce “Citizens Budgets” that would be easily understandable to the public. Seventeen governments, including Angola, Ghana, India, and Uganda, currently produce them, although they vary considerably in how much information they provide. The report also urged donor agencies to do more to encourage governments to inform their citizens both by increasing the transparency of their own aid and avoiding funding that is not included in the recipient’s budget. — IPS

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