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11 - Budget Advocacy


Public budgets ultimately determine policy outcomes. They show who benefits from public spending and who is bypassed, where the money is allocated and where it is not. Budget analysis can be a pivot to focus on local, national, and international issues.

Historically, public budgets have been formulated in secrecy by an elite corps of government bureaucrats, who mostly guide elected government officials, who in turn regularly respond to organized interests. In parliamentary systems, the Finance Minister is the major power. In the U.S., it is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and, sometimes, the Secretary of the Treasury as well.

Macro-economic policy, which directs the budget’s formulation, is also barely debated and rarely challenged. Arguments do occur but only over slices of specific items. For all practical purposes, the public, even those who are most active, is left out of budget policy deliberations.

To create space for public argument, organized advocates around the world have begun to analyze their national and local budgets. Their work includes summarizing official information that is readily available, and sharing it with other advocates to be used in their efforts.

In the U.S., major changes have taken place in fewer than 20 years. A small number of highly skilled budget analysts have emerged to work on the national and state levels. Premier among the national organizations is the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Born out of crisis during the Reagan Administration’s severe cutbacks to social programs, the Center has played a significant role in showing how the U.S. budget affects low-income families, the poor, and the near poor – including millions of people who work for a living and yet remain poor.

Idasa in South Africa, DISHA and Vidhayak Sansad in India, Proshika and IDPAA in Bangladesh, and many organizations in Latin America have started similar efforts, independently and in collaboration with the Center. For example, in Bangalore, India, the Public Affairs Centre has launched a “report card” that enables users of urban public services to rate levels of performance and their satisfaction. The idea is catching on in other cities, thereby widening the numbers of people familiar with the budget and primed for action.

In these ways, social justice advocates are using budget analysis to:

  • Amplify the voices of people who are not heard.
  • Raise issues that would otherwise be neglected, and draw the attention of the media and others in civil society.
  • Confront unequal power dynamics that affect the distribution of public resources.
  • Pressure governance institutions to treat marginalized people with dignity.
  • Create new public spaces for people’s participation.
  • Connect micro-level experiences to macro-level economic and social policies.
  • Learn how their decision making system works and how to make interventions earlier in the policy making process.
  • Gain the skills needed to effectively participate in public argument.

A public document once created in secrecy by a small governing elite is no longer perfunctory. It is under public scrutiny and, increasingly, public pressure to be responsive to people’s needs.

In many countries, national governments have devolved or are devolving power to local governments, as seen with neighborhood associations in Latin America, the Panchyat Raj in India, and the union parishads and other locally-elected bodies in Bangladesh. Within this context, budget analysis has become an entry point for building relationships with local officials to address the problems closest to people’s lives. These same local officials place pressure on national officials to change budget allocations so the coffers for poverty elimination, education, and other programs that help people are not left empty.

Budget analysis is also an entry point for tackling economic liberalization and globalization on an international level. For example, an international coalition – including faith-based organizations, development agencies, NGOs in the South and North, and others – has organized to critique SAPs and to push for cancellation of the vast majority of the debt created by these harmful programs. They see debt cancellation as a critical step in changing the direction of economic policies away from neo-liberal ideology.

Through budget analysis, these advocates have been able to:

  • Target the G-7 countries of Western Europe, North America, and Japan as the key decision makers in the IMF, World Bank, and other IFIs.
  • Translate an international declarative policy – reduce absolute poverty by 50% by 2015 – into a practical policy demand – forgive all or most of the debt based on a country’s ability to repay.
  • Use “jugular information” to frame the argument clearly and to make counterarguments ineffective. For example, in a short period of time, the stock market wealth in the richest countries has grown to 50 times more than the combined debt of the 42 poorest countries. As wealth grows, the case for forgiving the debt becomes even more compelling.
  • Show what each country has lost in paying off the debts, rather than supporting public programs to meet people’s basic needs: food, shelter, health, and education. Such information may include the number of deaths that were preventable through basic health services, or the number of children – especially girl children – that go uneducated. For example, in Tanzania, the debt payments are nine times greater than what it spends on primary health care, four times what it spends on primary education.

Exercise In your circle of advocacy colleagues, put a plan to get and analyze the public budget that has to do with your issue. Answer the following questions:

  • Was it easy to get the budget, or rather difficult?
  • Were the affected people and the activists aware of the role of the budget in addressing or hindering the problem?
  • Does the budget help the affected people overcome the problem, or it helps to aggravate the problem?
  • Is the budget applied as allocated, or there is a gap between the plan and the implementation?
1) This section is taken from: Cohen, David; De la Vega, Rosa; and Watson, Gabrielle, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A global Action and Reflection Guide. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.

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