Orientation to Budget Advocacy

Why Advocacy?

“Advocacy” is a word that means many different things in different contexts. Here, when we talk about “budget advocacy” we mean a strategic approach to influence governments’ budget choices, aimed at achieving clear and specific outcomes—e.g., healthier people, less poverty, or improved governance. These are clearly examples of long-term objectives. Effective advocacy will build toward attaining them with smaller concrete steps, such as increased budget allocations and more solid oversight of how funds are spent.

Policy and budget advocacy seeks to intervene in decision-making process in three fundamental ways:

  • Changing Policy: Based on analysis of the problems involved, advocates champion the creation of new laws, new public programs or activities, or modifications to existing laws and programs, etc.
  • Changing the Decision-making System: Advocates also turn their attention to the decision-making system itself, by demanding transparency and access to information, secure opportunities for public involvement, and clearer oversight over how public funds and public programs are managed.
  • Empowering People to Make Change: Equally if not more important, effective advocacy also involves empowering the people whose lives are impacted by public decisions to understand the issues involved and to be able to take action on their own behalf.

It is by paying attention to each of these three advocacy elements and by integrating them together that civil society advocacy can have its greatest impact on what governments do and, in turn, on people’s lives.

Why Budget Advocacy?

Many of the problems and challenges that countries face are most directly addressed through the government’s budget process. For example, a country may want to ensure that all its children have access to high-quality education. The government can pass a law requiring that all children be enrolled in school, but if the budget doesn’t include funds to build schools, hire and train teachers, and provide schoolbooks, there will be little chance of the enrollment requirement resulting in the desired outcome. This is why it is so critical to engage in the budget process. This example illustrates how important budget advocacy can be to efforts to address social and development issues, but it also shows that advocates will often need to approach their objectives from several fronts.

Budget advocacy, when it is most effective, combines two key elements. The first is budget analysis, the capacity to secure budget information, analyze it, and explain its implications in clear and compelling ways. The second element is strategic advocacy, the ability to get the word out about a campaign, mobilize the public, and reach out to policymakers and other stakeholders.

It is by combing these two capacities, and usually the different kinds of organizations in which those different skills reside, that civil society can make an extraordinary difference.

Although many of the tools and tactics are the same as in other forms of advocacy, efforts that focus on influencing public budget processes and policies (referred to throughout this section as “budget advocacy”) have one important characteristic that is often different. Budget advocacy is “evidence-based advocacy”—it depends on the mastery of certain kinds of information, often technical, and the translation of that information in ways understandable to policymakers, the public, the media, and other key actors in the decision-making process.

Changes in Policies and Systems

Budget advocacy seeks to not only achieve specific policy objectives, such as more money for schools or anti-poverty initiatives, but also to strengthen public finance processes, mechanisms, and institutions. This approach is based on an understanding that meeting people’s needs is not only about allocating the required funds but also assuring that those funds are spent in an effective and accountable manner.

In some cases, civil society organizations (CSOs) seek to change both the budget system and the policies it produces. This is the case with IBP’s partner Idasa, based in South Africa. Idasa’s budget work includes building the legislature’s capacity to perform its budget policy-making and oversight function through efforts to increase legislators public finance knowledge and by supplementing existing capacity with independent budget analysis. Idasa also advocates for policies to improve the lives of women, children, and those affected by HIV/AIDS by using the evidence they generate by analyzing prior, current, and proposed budgets.

Empowering People

Most forms of advocacy seek on some level to build the capacity and opportunities for citizens to participate effectively in decision-making processes that directly impact their lives, especially those who have limited access to, or are completely shut out of, these processes—the poor and vulnerable. They are shut out both systematically (i.e., these processes are closed to the public, access is limited to those with power and wealth, or the information needed to participate effectively is not released to the public) and through their experiences (i.e., marginalized people tend to have negative interactions with officials and power structures).

Budget advocacy is explicit that bringing these voices into public budgeting not only empowers individuals but also results in better, more sustainable decisions and outcomes—by providing more complete information on the public’s needs and priorities, enhancing the legitimacy of and increasing buy in to budget decisions, and strengthening oversight.

What Is Evidence-based Advocacy?

As noted before, effective budget advocacy depends on analysis of information. Budget advocates undertake rigorous efforts to analyze budget policies and processes to form the basis of both what they will advocate for and the arguments they will make to advance those objectives. Budget advocacy does not need to base itself on theory or conjecture. It can demonstrate, with hard numbers, how much a government is allocating to provide schooling for its children and demonstrate, again with hard numbers, the gap between what is allocated and what is needed to assure that all children have access to school.

Here is an example of this evidence-based approach in action, undertaken by IBP’s partner Fundar, in Mexico:

In 2002 Fundar set its sights on a government plan to divert funds allocated for HIV/AIDS and women’s health to a nongovernmental program, Centers to Assist Women. Fundar questioned what the reallocated funds would be used for and the wisdom of moving those funds from other projects that addressed such fundamental needs. Fundar used a national Right to Information law to obtain detailed information on the use of the reallocated funds. Through its analysis of this information, Fundar was able to show that the centers were linked to an organization (Provida) whose programs ran counter to the government’s policies on HIV/AIDS and that 90 percent of the funds had been misused. By incorporating this evidence into its advocacy, Fundar was able to trigger a government investigation and audit, which resulted in recovering the misused funds and collection of a large fine.

Evidence-based budget advocacy can be used to:

  • Empower ordinary people to participate in the budget process by demystifying the budget
  • Inform public debates by providing objective analysis of budget and policy proposals
  • Bring about policy changes, such as greater allocations for programs to fight poverty, by using data to demonstrate the effectiveness and financial viability of such efforts
  • Improve the delivery of public services by using evidence of poor service provision gathered through monitoring budget implementation to hold government accountable
  • Promote more transparent, participatory, and accountable budget processes by demonstrating how civil society can use budget information and public participation to strengthen and increase support for policies and contribute to oversight
  • Enhance the credibility of advocacy efforts

However, it is also important that groups that develop the capacity to secure and analyze information do so in a way that is strategic. The capacity to do such analytic work is a scarce resource in most civil society environments and it is easy to apply it ways that do not produce a strategic result in terms of advocacy. Here are three basic questions to keep in mind:

  1. What do you want to know, for strategic reasons?The Mexico example above offers a good lesson. Fundar did not set out to collect a quantity of general information. It had a specific question it wanted to answer: How were those reallocated funds being spent? Evidence-based advocacy begins with knowing the question you are trying to answer.
  2. How can you go about getting that information?This is where budget advocates apply their knowledge of the budget process, the forms in which information is available, and the ways they can secure that information, either formally or informally.
  3. How do you analyze and translate the information once you have it?Analyses of budget information are only as valuable as they are understandable and compelling to the audience you seek to educate or influence.

It is for all these reasons that budget advocacy requires CSOs to have the capacity to analyze budget information, or partnerships with other groups that have these skills. They also need to have access to comprehensive, timely, and useful budget information.

It also must be recognized that engaging in budget advocacy, or any form of advocacy, is often a long-term effort. Groups that produce rigorous and compelling analyses, develop a brilliant advocacy strategy, and execute it flawlessly, may still fail to achieve their objectives due to unforeseen circumstances, such as a crisis in another sector that draws attention away from their issue, unexpected shifts in the political context, or unexplained losses of key allies. The key is for advocates to try to understand what happened and adjust their strategy for the next opportunity.

Resources and Tools for Understanding Advocacy