What effect do civil society budget groups have on public budget allocations and implementation? Can they contribute towards social justice objectives or strengthening democracy? This working paper from the Institute of Development Studies examines the impact and significance of independent budget analysis and advocacy initiatives designed to enhance the transparency and poverty focus of public budgets. Using research on six civil society budget groups in Brazil, Croatia, India, Mexico, South Africa and Uganda, it argues that while the structure of the budget process makes substantial changes in expenditure priorities difficult to achieve, budget groups can increase the accountability of decision-makers.
Public budget processes in developing countries used to be viewed as the domain of executive and technical specialists. Legislators, civil society and the media are all now far more involved. This has stemmed from the good governance agenda of the 1990s, the emergence of independent budget groups, the Porto Alegre mass-participation budget experiment and the recognition of the centrality of budget expenditure to development policy.
Case study evidence highlights both the success and constraints surrounding civil society contribution to the budget process, budget allocations and implementation:
- Budget groups can be independent and authoritative sources of information that broaden public awareness and understanding of budgets. This can be achieved by publishing information directly or advocating the introduction of freedom of information legislation.
- In attempting to increase transparency, some budget groups choose to limit themselves to providing objective information for other organisations to use. Others combine this with advocacy to influence budget policies for the benefit of poor and marginal constituencies.
- Tracking of budgetary expenditures and impacts is particularly useful in ensuring effective utilisation of education and health expenditures.
- The structure of budget processes makes substantial changes in expenditure priorities difficult. Also, the fact that budget groups generally focus their limited resources on advocacy work means they are not structured for direct participation in budget processes.
- Nevertheless, by influencing the allocation and use of public expenditure, budget groups can contribute to equity and social justice outcomes. Budget groups must now scale up and replicate successful impacts achieved to date in areas such as child budgets and maternal health.
The contribution of civil society budget work extends beyond budget policies and processes to strengthening democracy:
- Budget groups questioning executive decisions and then monitoring expenditure outcomes enhances accountability.
- Groups contribute to greater openness in decision-making and make government information accessible in the public domain, thus improving transparency.
- Through sustained collective action, budget groups can ensure their demands are reflected in budget priorities. They can also enable legislators to better scrutinise budgets. This deepens participation and citizen voice.