Sitting out in the sun, in the middle of a public school premises, I intently looked at a woman clad in a patchy orange saree carrying a lean child on her lap. It was hard not to wonder whether her bare five years of primary school education really helped her understand public financial management! Indeed I was wrong. It was the sheer urge of entertainment and not curiosity about public financial management that drew her, and many more like her, to the premises of a government owned school in Hazaribaag, near the Beribaad, Mirpur area of Dhaka.
Theatre artistes sat upright as they geared up for the final rehearsal of the street theatre show, to be staged all over Bangladesh in 46 villages over the next one year. This, in contemporary language would be called “edu-tainment”, helping people understand public financial management in a simple but entertaining way that would immediately establish relevant links to their everyday lives; sensitizing in them at least the curiosity to know what “government” money is spent on and why they, living for instance near Beribaad, a neglected, underdeveloped area of the capital, should care about how the government spends money. After all, in principle, it is public money, despite the modest tax-GDP ratio of Bangladesh!
The loud voice of the actor playing the village minstrel captured the farthest of audiences flocking to the school field that afternoon. The depth of the audience’s understanding of the implications of the play are yet to be explored but there was no lack of excitement and interest about the skillfully written songs with embedded meanings, sung by the actor playing the village minstrel.
The protagonists’ courtship was another appreciated sequence of the play. It helped draw attention to the lack of doctors in the village hospital as the female protagonist’s grandfather fell sick. Comic elements, such as village children giving directions to an old man trying to walk on the broken village street amused the audience and at the same time, left a question hanging in the air - Why is the road not well-maintained despite the local taxes paid by the villagers? The play very well articulated people’s right to information and the essence of their participation in local budget sessions to help budgeting authorities identify pressing priorities.
The street theatre forms part of the comprehensive awareness building communication program that aims to sensitize citizens’ concern about public financial management by presenting the concept as a bridge between efficient public service and citizens’ wellbeing. The need for such a communication program was validated by a survey on citizens’ perception of public financial management in Bangladesh, carried out under the same program, earlier this year on the educated urban population. The survey revealed a mismatch of public preference to actual budget allocation, with respect to prioritizing economic sectors. In addition, grievance about quality and accessibility of public service and corruption and inefficiency in delivery also came out vividly.
On the other hand, even educated elites of urban areas were perceived to be unaware of even the existence of some of the major public financial management oversight institutions and systems of Bangladesh. Whilst barriers to access to information seem responsible for this ignorance even amongst urban educated elites, in many cases, indifference was perceived to have played a role. On the other hand, rural people, beyond the scope of the survey, are definitely the most underprivileged and powerless when it comes to basic rights of demanding accountability and right to information at least in the context of Bangladesh. This normative statement hardly needs any survey for validation.
The government, regarded as the unquestionable sovereign by the average humble citizen of the country forming the major part of the population, seems an unreachable, formidable pinnacle. This distance with the government has also fostered indifference on the part of the urban elites. Awareness building through edu-tainment aims to minimize this opaqueness and distance and sensitize a demand for better schools, healthcare, utility supplies, law and order, infrastructure etc. The bridge to enhancement of these services may then be perceived as public financial management, the inherent tool of efficient public service delivery.
This demand sensitization initiative follows public financial management reform’s history of nearly fifteen long years in Bangladesh. All initiatives have so far been supply driven, eagerly taken forward by the government, with continual support from various development partners. The legacy is currently being carried forward by Strengthening Public Expenditure Management Program (SPEMP), executed by the Ministry of Finance, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office and the Parliament Secretariat.
The program, supported by a multi donor trust fund (administered by The World Bank with contributions from DfID, EU, DANIDA and Netherlands), aims to reinforce the government’s budget preparation and execution capacities as well as strengthen legislative and external oversight to enhance the entire system of public financial management in Bangladesh over the next four years. Whilst the three major initiatives under this program are essentially supply driven, the communication program to raise awareness represents the “demand” side of SPEMP, complementing the supply side, aiming to reinforce the existing path to reform.
Indeed the minstrel’s songs may still hang in the air but whether the embedded messages would be retained prominently needs to be closely monitored. The awareness movement for public financial management is continually striving to explore newer and more innovative ways of reaching out to the mass for whom public financial management exists. The reform endeavor has just begun.