How to Advocate for Budget Transparency in Cloaked Countries: A CSO Perspective

Oct 08, 2013

This post was written by Albert Van Zyl, Research Manager at the International Budget Partnership.

In September 2011 the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and civil society partners in 10 countries with limited transparency launched an advocacy initiative to increase the amount of budget information made available to the public. The consistently low rankings of these countries on the Open Budget Index indicate the presence of persistent barriers to improvements in budget transparency. As a result of this initiative, governments in six of the 10 countries began publishing for the first time new budget documents. Somewhat surprising in what are clearly “tough neighborhoods.” The availability of these documents will enable citizens and others to monitor government spending where it was previously not possible.

The IBP also documented partners’ experience of this initiative. It is no surprise that CSOs thought their ability to establish a working relationships with government was decisive. Their perception of why they managed to establish such relationships or not, is very interesting.

First build trust

In Kazakhstan the Economic Research Evaluation and Monitoring Center (ERMEC) reported that decision makers were more open to participating in informal engagement or training sessions than formal policy-level dialogue.  Officials were much more likely to say “yes” to invitations to technical trainings than they were to more formal policy-oriented negotiations. Setting up technical trainings at the beginning of such a project thus can be an effective strategy, not just because officials learn about budget transparency but also because it provides informal opportunities to building relationships with key decision makers. In Rwanda the Budget Information Program emphasized the same point: “We drafted a position paper on the implementation of the organic budget law, but this put too much pressure on our contacts in the Ministry of Finance. It was important for us to establish a trusting relationship first.”

Another important aspect in building these relationships was the ability to formulate advocacy goals that seem realistic and constructive to officials. The Budget Information Centre in Cameroon found, for example, that government officials were more attentive to their demands when transparency reforms were proposed along with an implementation strategy.

While a trusting relationship between the civil society partner and key decision makers is important, on its own it is not a sufficient condition for success. The experiences of partners show that it is crucial to follow up with decision makers until the very end in order to obtain results. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the government promised to publish the Executive Budget Proposal early on in the initiative. However, it still took several months of follow-up work before the document was actually published.

The imperative to first build trust strokes with recent research on how to build governance accountability in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Get the rest of civil society on your side

Several partners reported that appealing to the collective voice of civil society also drew the government’s attention. However, speaking on behalf of the broader civil society needs to be convincing when challenged. The National Budget Project in Cambodia, for example, struggled to provide concrete evidence that there is demand for budget information, which undermined direct meetings with the Ministry of Finance. Other partners were more successful at rallying support from civil society for transparency reform, for example, through social media campaigns or by engaging local journalists. The Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International (FSPI) in Fiji reports that “the activities that contributed the most [to the advocacy objective] included the media engagement in the print, radio and TV sectors. Whilst it is difficult to ascertain whether these activities directly or indirectly influenced the Ministry’s decision to upload the Budget Estimate onto its website, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Ministry reacted towards the media articles, including the 2012 Open Budget Survey press release.”

International leverage

Another strategy that partners used to get a seat at the table was to appeal to the international image of the country. In Kazakhstan, for instance, the country’s image in the region and internationally is very important to the government. When the partner organization offered regional examples of countries that publish a Mid-Year Review, Kazakh decision makers became more receptive to the idea of replicating this practice. However, this strategy did not work in all cases.  The partner in Bolivia reported that this strategy was not successful there, as the government generally does not care as much about regional or international standards and practices. Recent research by Gaventa and McGee came to a similar conclusion.

Many partners called on the IBP to participate in this part of their strategy, as many governments are aware of the IBP’s role in driving the international budget transparency agenda. Leveraging the IBP’s reputation through their involvement in the project, therefore, is a powerful tool to establish organizational credibility with and buy in from the government. This is particularly important in countries where local civil society organizations have struggled historically to get the government to concede that transparency is important. In such cases, meetings with IBP staff members helped to convince the government of the growing international consensus on the value of budget transparency. In Cameroon, for example, the CSO partner reported that “the IBP visit helped to create awareness. There is now no one in the Ministry of Finance who doesn’t know about the OBI.” The Cambodian partner also cites IBP involvement as the activity that contributed the most to influencing decision makers; “since the OBI regional launch in Cambodia in 2010 we have become a lot more successful at lobbying the Ministry of Economy and Finance on key issues. The government now listens to what we have to say.” Moreover, the Mozambican partner argues that IBP staff are in a position to ask questions that perhaps would not be acceptable from a “local.”

The IBP will use these lessons to continue these efforts to increase budget transparency in countries that are stalling on transparency. Specifically, we are designing a campaign with the Global Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability and Participation (BTAP) targeting the 20 least transparent in the world.

The countries and organizations were: Bolivia, Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA); Cambodia, National Budget Project (NBP); Cameroon, Budget Information Centre (BIC); Democratic Republic of Congo, Economic Governance and Democracy Network (REGED); Fiji, Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International (FSPI); Kazakhstan, Economic Research Evaluation and Monitoring Center (ERMEC); Mali, Groupe de recherche en économie appliquée et théorique (GREAT); Mozambique, Centro de Integridade Pública (CIP); Niger, Alternative Espaces Citoyens (AEC); Rwanda, Budget Information Program (BIP).

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