In 1985 Disha, a civil society organization in Gujarat, India, wanted the government to address several issues affecting poor people living in tribal areas, including land rights and support for Tendu leaf-plucker women. Although Disha was well-equipped with economic and moral arguments and were seasoned advocates, they realized that without hard data on how the national and local governments were currently using, and planning to use, public funds to support tribal development, it would be nearly impossible to convince the government to address these issues. So Disha began to gather this data and use it to advocate for stronger policies for poor, tribal people. Thus was born one of the first “budget groups” – civil society organizations that analyze government budgets and undertake advocacy to influence these budgets in order to improve policies, service delivery, and outcomes, particularly for the poor.

IBP and civil society budget work

The International Budget Partnership (IBP) was formed in 1997 to promote transparent and inclusive government budget processes as a means to improve governance and service delivery in the developing world. IBP’s focus on citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) was driven by the pioneering civil society budget monitoring efforts in a small number of middle-income countries in the early 1990s.

Since then, the growth in CSO budget work, as it has been termed, has been dramatic in both middle- and low-income countries. In 1997, IBP worked with think tanks in approximately eight countries. Today, IBP works with a much wider and more diverse community of independent organizations dedicated to budget monitoring in over 100 countries. In large part because of the efforts of IBP and its civil society partners, it is increasingly recognized that when ordinary people are involved in managing the public’s money, you get stronger decisions, less corruption and mismanagement, and better outcomes for a country’s people, especially the poor. In other words: Open Budgets. Transform Lives.

IBP’s ultimate aim is to ensure that public resources are used more effectively to fight poverty and promote equitable and sustainable development in countries around the world. Its work, and that of its civil society partners, is based on the idea that skilled CSOs and citizens, combined with access to information and opportunities to engage in the budget process, contribute to increases in the quantity of public resources that are available for service delivery and improvements in how those resources are spent. To achieve and sustain these outcomes and improve the impact of the budget on poor and marginalized communities, IBP partners combine high-quality, accessible, and timely analysis with effective dissemination and advocacy, and intensive work in coalitions and with other formal and informal actors (government, legislatures and auditors, civil society, and the media) in the public finance accountability ecosystem.

IBP’s work is fueled by these core assumptions:

  • Public understanding and engagement are necessary if public budgeting processes are to be reformed and budgets are to be more responsive.
  • Successful CSO engagement requires that citizens have access to information and opportunities to participate in the formulation, implementation, and oversight of public policies and budgets.
  • Government has the primary duty to provide the public with timely, comprehensive information on the budget and opportunities for participation in budget processes.
  • Government has the primary duty to ensure that the maximum available public funds are devoted to reductions in poverty.
  • Public funds should be spent on public priorities, especially those of the poor and marginalized

Where Is Civil Society Budget Work at Today?

The work of IBP and its civil society partners has started to pay off:

  • Civil society budget work has grown from CSOs in a handful of countries in the late 1990s to hundreds of organizations in over 100 countries actively involved in government budget processes today.
  • There is growing evidence that civil society participation in public budgeting can have a significant impact on budget process, policies, and outcomes.
  • Civil society organizations in several countries have strengthened the ability of legislatures and supreme audit institutions to play their role as indirect representatives of the people and important oversight institutions by providing technical assistance, important information on the needs and priorities of the public, and independent, objective budget analyses.

And the progress is real – civil society engagement in public budgeting is now widely acknowledged and promoted within civil society organizations and by donors, and an increasing number of governments are committed to transparent, accountable, and effective budget processes.

Still, the problem of closed budgeting persists in far too many countries around the world, and the use of public resources too frequently does not prioritize the needs of poor and vulnerable communities, those that rely most on public support.

Next Steps for IBP and Its Partners

It is within this context that IBP has deepened and broadened its collaboration with civil society budget groups to engage in initiatives and efforts that will contribute to:

  • greater budget transparency and opportunities for engagement in budget processes;
  • improvements in the quality of government budget institutions;
  • more progressive budget policies and inclusive budget processes;
  • larger allocations for critical social programs; and
  • more effective and efficient use of scarce budgetary resources.

IBP brings to these efforts the working relationships that it has developed with organizations in more than 100 countries. Most of these organizations are members of a vibrant international network that has helped build the field by fostering collaboration across international boundaries, sharing the lessons learned from the work, and pioneering new approaches to citizen oversight of government operations. Through these relationships and its core programs, IBP pursues its goals with the ultimate aim of systemically improving levels of governance and reducing poverty.

Impact of Civil Society Budget Work

In India, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights exposed how the government diverted $150 million from programs for the poor and marginalized to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. To date, 75 percent of these funds have been returned to their original purpose. (Talk about “returns on investment;” NCDHR’s total annual operating budgeting is about $326,000.)

In Mexico, Fundar used budget research to spearhead a successful effort to reduce the share of a $20 billion agricultural subsidy program that goes to the largest farmers and increase the share that goes to smaller, poorer farmers.

In the Philippines, the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government monitors how hundreds of government projects are implemented and, in doing so, uncovered a famous case of government/contractor corruption.

In South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign and the Center for Economic Governance and Aids in Africa have extensively monitored the planning, funding, and implementation of the nation’s HIV/AIDs programs, helping to greatly boost that country’s sometimes reluctant efforts in this vital area.

In Argentina, the Civil Association for Equality and Justice used budget monitoring and litigation to determine that Buenos Aires was systematically under-spending on education for the poor, helping to convince the city to make a major commitment to provide spaces for those excluded from school attendance.