A short rant about why we should bother with government budgets

Jun 11, 2012

This blog has recently posted extensively on all manner of seemingly technical issues about government budgets. From whether rigid budget caps are a good thing to why Kenya’s National Hospital Insurance Fund should become more transparent. If you are not a budget wonk, this stuff can get confusing. So its time to explain why the International Budget Partnership obsesses about budgets, transparency, popular participation and all that stuff.

 Here goes…

  •  There are enough resources in the world to eliminate poverty; the problem is the collection, distribution and management of these resources.
  • Governments have a responsibility to raise and spend money to alleviate and eradicate such poverty and suffering.
  • Too often governments don’t raise as much tax revenue as they could or they raise too much from poor people and not enough from the rich.
  • And sometimes governments don’t allocate what money they do raise to programs that benefit the poor and the marginalized.
  • Or they waste and divert what money they do allocate to the benefit the poor.
  • When ordinary people and civil society organizations have access to the necessary skills, quality budget information and meaningful participation opportunities in government decisions, they will encourage and help governments to do a better job of raising, allocating and spending public funds.
  • When governments do a better job of raising, allocating and spending public funds, much preventable poverty and suffering will be alleviated and eradicated.
  • For this reason it is important to empower ordinary people and civil society; improve the quality budget information that is made public and improve and protect the avenues for popular participation in the government budget process.

 Wanna argue?

If you think that any of these statements, or the multiple assumptions that sit behind them, are flapdoodle, tell us why. We are always ready for a good argument.


  1. While there are enough resources to allieviate starvation & homelessness, along with a good bit of disease, the idea of eradicating poverty is foolish on its face. Poverty is relative, the “poor” in the us make at least 10 x the income of third world poor. The definition of poverty gets defined up or down relative to the wealth of the area. Therefore poverty is endemic and cannot ever be eradicated.

    Governments have no responsibility to alleviate poverty, rather the responsibility is to the general well-being of those governed. However, the governed generally desire the government to take steps the people can’t in order to alleviate suffering.

    Government should not collect more money just because it can and lack of government money collection is not a big factor is widespread poverty.

    Instead, the diversion, waste & theft of government funds is the main reason there is hunger, homelessness, & excessive poverty related disease in the world today.

    People, who have generally only had the freedom to improve the human condition for a few hundred years have made amazing progress in mitigating poverty and suffering, while improving their own wellbeing at the same time. Governments stand in the way or reverse progress much more often than they help.

    1. The post doesn’t say a much of what you seem to think it is saying, but I’ll let that slide.

      You argue that poverty is relative and cannot be eradicated. Even if that were true, there is no denying that a fairer distribution of resources is possible and desirable. I could drown you in statistics that make this point.

      You argue that governments have no responsibility to alleviate poverty, but rather to the general well-being of those governed. Its not clear to me how a concern with the general well-being of those government excludes poverty alleviation.

      Your claim that governments stand in the way of progress seems to be a vote of support for my arguments. Thanks.

      1. If you are saying governments make poverty worse, I agree. I’ll add that they do it to gain & hold power.

        It may be semantics but thevonly way to eliminate poverty is to tear down all wealth. The only way for distribution of goods to be equal is for the amount of goods to be zero.

        If you want to change your goal to eliminate hunger & provide shelter to all, I would agree with most of your post.

  2. So here’s a question: are budgets the right instrument? They are political documents that are vaguely based on statistical information which estimates the previous year’s expenditure. No serious international business would engage in financial analytics and projection based on such bad information.

    Given that the technical means to look directly at expenditure in a granular form are easy to access for everyone today, why do we even bother with these high-level, politicized summaries?

    Initiatives such as IATI are starting to do this, by looking at activities and individual transactions. Yet it seems like we still don’t feel we can expect the same level of information about granular expenditure, procurement and the link between this information and larger policies or objectives from governments. Why is that?

    1. Interesting arguments.

      I think I use the word ‘budgets’ differently than you. I refer to the entire budget process. From high level spending proposal (this is what I think you mean by budgets), right through to actual expenditure and the fine grained reporting that sometimes goes with it.

      I would support any argument for more detailed and disaggregated budget information, but on its own it only goes so far. It seems that we can’t really get away from politics when it comes to governments and their budgets. For change to happen, you also need citizens and citizens organisations to use such information to put political pressure on governments. Which is why I argue for a formula that puts participation together with budget information.

  3. I can’t argue with this logic, except on one point. In my experience of budget monitoring in Tanzania, which is extensive, when you ask for budget information from a particular local government department, you get a blank face in response. This is not because they don’t want to give you the figures (although they generally don’t), but rather its because in practice, the budget management system within government is so poor that most local government departments don’t have a meaningful and dependable budget to work from.

    Budgets don’t get approved until well into the financial year in question, funds don’t get transferred until much later still, if at all, and often the amount that arrives is quite different from what was budgeted. A District Education Officer, for example, doesn’t really know how much money will be available for their department until it arrives. The same is true of schools’ Head Teachers, etc.

    So perhaps the biggest (or at least the first) achievement of making budgets public would be to create the pressure to make budgets meaningful.

    1. Interesting points as always, Ben. I agree that even technical support to governments would need some form of political/popular pressure to make them stick.

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