What Are We Learning About Ecosystems and Social Change?

by Albert Van Zyl, Director of Strategy and Learning, IBP; and Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow, Open Budget Initiative, IBP— Jun 22, 2016

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An essay from the International Budget Partnership’s 2015 Annual Report

Despite sustained economic growth since the mid-1980s, Uganda’s maternal mortality ratio in 2011 remained three times higher than the ratio established as a Millennium Development Goal. At the time, civil society organizations (CSOs) had been campaigning for increased maternal health funding for many years with little success. It was only after the Human Resources for Health (HRH) campaign started to build collaborative relationships between the parliament’s Committee on Health, a group of journalists covering health issues, health workers, and a large network of CSOs at national and grassroots level, that they were able to convince the government to increase allocations for health. The result was a USD 20 million increase in the health budget and the recruitment of 6,172 health workers. The cooperative, networked character of HRH’s campaign is mirrored in many other CSO campaigns from South Africa, Brazil, India, and elsewhere.

By documenting these CSO campaigns, and the oversight systems in which they are conducted, IBP has become aware of the need to adjust our assumptions about civil society budget work and its impact — a key outcome for us in our efforts to build institutions that effectively engage in budget analysis, advocacy, and accountability. More specifically, we need to shift beyond a narrow focus on building the technical skills and knowledge of CSOs to influence the executive arm of government to a more holistic approach that recognizes the complementary roles of different actors in what we have come to call the accountability ecosystem. This ecosystem, in which budget processes are embedded, encompasses a number of institutions and organizations above and beyond civil society and executive government. It includes formal oversight institutions (such as legislatures and supreme audit institutions), the media, the courts, and others, as well as the relationships that they have with and among one another.

Two recent IBP research projects helped us think more deeply about how we have approached this issue. A synthesis of 23 of IBP’s case studies revealed how the impact of CSO budget work often depends on building relationships with a variety of actors. To investigate further, IBP teamed up with the German development agency GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) to look at the workings of the budget accountability ecosystem — and at the role that external actors can play in supporting such systems — across a set of six countries (Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, and South Africa).

The research shows that budget accountability ecosystems look quite similar across countries. While formal rules and institutions may vary, the set of actors involved is quite similar, as are the main challenges that they face — legislatures and supreme audit institutions lack independence and resources, and citizens are mostly excluded from the process, weakening the prospects for accountability. The research also found that cooperation between different actors is not very widespread. Where it exists, it is often very informal and ad hoc, and not supported by legislation or adequate institutional arrangements. Lastly, the research found that external support to budget accountability actors by donors and international NGOs is often fragmented and uncoordinated. It does not help develop the all-important relationships that ensure an effective functioning of the ecosystem as a whole.

The synthesis of the IBP case studies found that, while campaigns that have a high level of cooperation with both oversight actors and the executive tend to have a greater impact, building such relationships requires high levels of technical knowledge, organizational skills, and access to government, which not all CSOs possess. The synthesis argues further that there is no standard recipe for cooperation with oversight actors or the executive. The value to CSO campaigns of engaging with one or more of these actors, and the form that engagement takes, depends on the campaigns’ objectives, whom they need to influence to have an impact, and what influence the organizations already have. Cooperation with oversight actors and the executive, therefore, varies by level (local, national, international), duration, direction (national to local, etc.), and intensity (from integration to ad hoc opportunism).

The Budget Accountability Ecosystem
The Budget Accountability Ecosystem. Click to enlarge.

The role that IBP can play in strengthening accountability ecosystems is multifaceted. Where collaborative engagement between different accountability actors happens, it is largely based on personal relationships between strategically placed individuals and is therefore often informal and ad hoc in nature. Without discounting the value of these engagements, they are unlikely to lead to accountability ecosystems that are strong, sustainable, and scalable if they depend on privileged relationships and personal motivations. Instead, we must find ways to supplement these informal or ad hoc relationships with engagements between different accountability actors that are institutionalized, such as establishing requirements and mechanisms to involve citizens in the audit process, as South Korea has done, or mandating public participation in all the key phases of the budget process. Beyond legal mandates, the oversight actors in these more formal processes must be encouraged and supported to go beyond “ticking the box” to real engagement.

For this reason, IBP will deepen its efforts at the international level to institutionalize these relationships. For instance through our collaborations with the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) to promote new norms and disseminate good practice examples. We will support this work on norms through future iterations of the Open Budget Survey that will more deeply and holistically measure and influence the accountability ecosystem of individual countries.

At country level, we will revise our methods for country assessments to better capture the nature of individual country’s accountability ecosystems in order to design suitable country strategies. And, our training and technical assistance team will develop a manual to guide CSO efforts to navigate the accountability ecosystem in their countries and sectors. At the same time, we will continue to build the capacity of CSO country partners to develop the informal, and often personal, networks that contribute most to effective CSO advocacy. In terms of our research into understanding how budget accountability ecosystems work, we will look more deeply into the tactics and strategies that CSOs use to build up the various relationships that make up these systems, and their implications for a more effective and equitable management of public resources.

Further Reading

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