Help our children make it through COVID-19: we need transparent budgets

by Matthew Cummins, Social Policy Regional Adviser, UNICEF — Sep 30, 2020

Most children in the world are not attending school. Millions are unlikely to return. Disruptions to cash, food, health, protection and other programs leave hundreds of millions of children exposed to hunger, violence, sickness and even death. Such risks are magnified where household income has fallen due to job loss, lower earnings and/or fewer remittances.

“If you are not infected, you are affected.” Once commonly used when referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this same phrase can now be applied to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While younger children are not considered at high risk of direct health complications due to the virus, the epidemic is having an indelible and devastating impact on their current and future lives.

COVID-19 has significantly overstretched the capacity of many governments to finance the delivery of essential services to children and their families. Well before the pandemic, many countries were failing to invest sufficient resources in programs that improve the wellbeing of vulnerable populations, including children. With the collapse of government revenue alongside the surge in demand for spending in recent months, fiscal deficits are widening to historic proportions. In this context, governments must ensure that massive budget reallocations and fiscal stimulus packages do not crowd out spending on goods and services that often serve as a lifeline.

Government spending decisions have life and death consequences. A study by The Lancet shows that a modest disruption of health systems and decreased access to food is likely to kill an additional 1.1 million children and 56,000 mothers over the next six months as an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that public finance decisions taken today will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the world’s 2.4 billion children and their caregivers, especially those living in developing countries.

Public oversight of government spending is imperative

At all times, but clearly even more so during periods of crisis, creating opportunities for the public to provide input and monitor how governments allocate public funds is crucial. Yet, we know from the results of the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS 2019) that most countries fall short of this. As the world’s only independent, fact-based, and comparative assessment of public budget accountability — transparency, oversight, and public engagement — the OBS offers insight into how inaccessible government budgets can perpetuate poverty and inequality.

For example, recent research by UNICEF and the International Budget Partnership found that one-third of the budget for immunization programs in 22 countries went unspent during the period from 2009 – 2017, the most recent years for which data was available. Without an open budget process, it is unclear what happened to these resources. While poor budget transparency practices are a major concern for children during normal times, the stakes have never been higher than in 2020.

As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to intensify across the globe, there is a danger that the open budget agenda will reverse and close. Normal budgeting and spending processes have already been upended as emergency packages move forward with limited or no consultation from the public. Parliamentary oversight functions have been significantly reduced in many countries, and lockdowns have created new public finance planning and implementation challenges. The year 2020 is likely to be characterized by the largest public spending deviations in all of history.

Open budgets can be an effective tool in creating a better future for our children

As we cope with this crisis, we also see an opportunity to shape the future — where citizens and government are in active dialogue about the best way to invest scarce resources. Open budgets help align government spending with the needs of vulnerable communities.

Producing comprehensive, useful, and timely budget information enables different groups to assess the impact of government spending and hold governments accountable. In addition, higher credit ratings from improved transparency allow governments to borrow more and cheaper funds, while also attracting greater budget support from donors. This increases the overall pot of resources and potential impact of national budgets on people’s lives.

We’ve seen firsthand how information from the OBS empowers governments and civil society to quickly improve budget openness.

Using results from OBS 2017, UNICEF and IBP supported finance ministries in implementing budget transparency improvement action plans, which catalyzed the publication of more budget information and created new spaces for citizens to contribute to public finance decisions. As a result of these efforts, 15 of the 19 countries in Eastern and Southern African that participated in the latest rounds of the OBS recorded significant improvements in their scores.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we must advocate for and keep the pressure on governments to conduct proper consultations in forming their budgets, carefully document what is being funded, and report on the impact of that funding to hold them accountable.

In recent days, IBP and UNICEF convened a conversation on the transparency of health and education budgets with over 150 participants from government and civil society around the world as well as a discussion with finance ministry officials and civil society organizations from more than a dozen countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to discuss the latest Open Budget Survey results.

We join hundreds of signatories from organizations around the world to call on governments to adopt open budget practices now. Together, we can use budgets as the ultimate tool to champion the voices of our children when they need it most.

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