Let’s talk about money: Does Asian civil society care about national budgeting?

By Civil Society Team on Mon, 25 November 2013

Photo owned by www.TaxFix.co.uk/. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo owned by www.TaxFix.co.uk/. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Written by Haidy Ear-Dupuy, Social Development Specialist 

Asians love to talk about money.  We discuss the price of everything.  How much money does the neighbor make?  How much does a traditional Asian wedding cost?  How much does a private education cost? It is not a private subject either. In some countries, “how much do you make?” is one of the first questions asked of a stranger.  

Yet when it comes to discussing money in a national context, we tend to shy away from the discussion.  Why is this? And how can money-savvy citizens get more involved in helping their governments manage national finances?  

Perhaps one area where civil society can help is in public service delivery.  It is widely recognized that citizen participation in monitoring public service delivery helps boost accountability.  Understanding government budgets is one of the most powerful tools to help citizens influence service delivery programs.  However, for the average citizen, analyzing state revenues and expenditures is a complex and opaque exercise.  In some countries, accessing information can be difficult and the technical knowledge required may not be readily available.  In many instances the work requires collaboration between civil society groups and governments focused on common goals—accountability and transparency.    

How can civil society get the support it needs to analyze budgets?  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the International Budget Partnership (IBP) workshop to support analysis and budget advocacy training for civil society groups.  The IBP works with various civil society groups to help them understand government budget processes.  

Being armed with the technical expertise to analyze, however, is not enough. Another obstacle is how to obtain the necessary budget information.  Not many developing countries governments publish or share budget information.  According to an Open Government Partnership blog on Indonesia, “before the 1998 reformation, getting access to information on budget matters from the Indonesian government would be labeled as ‘subversive’”.  To encourage more discussions on budgeting, IBP works with the Center for Budget and Policy Studies in India and the Development Initiative for Social and Human Action (DISHA) to conduct analysis and policy advocacy.  

In order to raise the capacity of government and civil society organizations to work together on budgeting, ADB pilot tested a participatory scheme in three countries:  Indonesia, Marshall Islands, and Pakistan. These pilots identified the challenges of public involvement in the budget process and highlighted the need for an active and articulate civil society. Provided that governments have the political will and technical resources, civil society engagement is not difficult to tap. 

The results, captured in "Fostering Public Participation in Budget-making: Case Studies from Indonesia, Marshall Islands, and Pakistan," make a strong statement for greater public inclusion.  They show how simple, effective, and low-cost methods can be used by local governments to promote transparency and openness in their decision making.  Transparency is vital for good governance, which in turn leads to economic growth and poverty reduction in the long term.  

Transparency and accountability in budgetary processes can open up space for more people to talk about public money, such as government revenue collection and expenditure on public goods. This form of participatory and inclusive governance is becoming crucial for Asia as many countries move towards middle-income status.  

The capacity of citizens to understand, analyze and influence public budgets will only grow as more citizens seek to be a part of the change that they want to see.  Governments must be ready for this, making budget information and details of financial decision-making publicly available.  Together, civil society organizations and the government can work effectively together to develop budgeting processes which can contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive, sustainable development.