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The People's Purse: Budgeting for the Poor

Antonio Lambino's picture

It is uncontroversial that the resources governments spend belong to the people.  How these resources get allocated varies from country to country at the national and local levels.  Debates and deliberations surrounding the budgetary process are usually technical, tedious, and time-consuming.  Nonetheless, budgeting in the public sector is a critical entry point for the demand for better public goods and services and, more broadly, meaningful and effective citizen engagement.  If citizens could exercise their voices in the prioritization of public sector spending, then government programs would have a higher likelihood of reflecting the needs and wants of constituents.  So a key challenge and opportunity in this area is finding a judicious balance between solid technical analysis and meaningful citizen participation.

Drawing from experiences in six countries*, Budgeting for the Poor, edited by Mark Robinson, provides both pragmatic principles and good practices in strengthening vertical accountability between the government and citizenry.  Robinson defines vertical accountability as “the means by which citizens organize themselves into associations to lobby governments for taking action against errant officials or reviewing or reversing decisions that do not conform to stated intentions.  These include forms of citizen action that scrutinize government decisions, expose official malfeasance… and bring new issues to the public agenda.”  

In the book, Robinson offers feasible approaches to splitting the difference between the need for technical expertise in budgeting, which technocrats and some elected representatives should have, versus the need for enhanced modes of participation by citizens and organized groups, who obviously know their own preferences but may not possess technical background.  From experience, here are some ways to facilitate citizen and civil society participation (p. 10):

  • tracking expenditure outcomes in which the poor and their representatives are able to monitor whether allocations have resulted in physical outputs that can be independently verified;
  • enhancing the capacity of elected representatives to participate more actively in the budget process by arming them with accurate and accessible information to scrutinize expenditure decisions and budget implementation;
  • providing voice to socially excluded and marginalized citizens to ensure their priorities are taken into account in budget debates and in reviewing implementation.

For any of these to work on the ground, given the technical language of budgets, it is critical for organizations that do budget analysis and advocacy to effectively communicate with multiple stakeholders.  The last chapter on policy and practice implications by de Renzio and Krafchik speaks well to this issue (p. 192):

“Budget groups’ primary audiences are the executive and legislative branches of government, civil society groups and the media.  While government technocrats might prefer a substantive technical analysis, politicians will probably have time only for key findings and policy proposals.  Parliamentarians, who often do not have technical experience, may need background on the context of the research and on the ways in which they can influence the executive.  Grassroots organizations might prefer visual materials with simple language in order to reach community audiences, while journalists will be most interested in news stories of public interest.  The implication of that to be effective, the results of budget analysis should be disseminated in a way that is diverse, targeted, clear and timely, making a convincing case that encourages other stakeholders to act on its recommendations.”

Enabling citizens to influence the ways in which resources are allocated and spent in their name requires a good handle on what is feasible in the real world and how budget information can be communicated effectively.  Budgeting for the Poor is an excellent resource for this work.

*India, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Croatia, and Uganda

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