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What Can We Learn from Eight Successful Campaigns on Budget Transparency and Accountability?

Duncan Green's picture

Over the last couple of years, the International Budget Partnership has published a set of fascinating case studies of campaigns on issues of government accountability, budget transparency and access to information. I finally sat down and read them all recently (the summer lull is a wonderful thing). What conclusions do they draw (see end of post for links to the case studies)?

As always, good case studies endorse some of your thinking, but also add some new ideas and insights (at least for me). The common ground is that multi-pronged approaches and alliances have more impact. Successful campaigns often work across multiple layers of government (village, district, state, federal), using multiple strategies (research and insider advocacy, street protest, media). The most effective alliances often bring together unusual suspects (eg radical grassroots CSOs and nerdy thinktanks in the Mexico subsidies campaign).

Combined insider/outsider strategies identify and work with allies within the target institutions, and keep the pressure up from outside via ‘popular mobilization’ (pop mob in the awful Oxfam jargon). Reasonably rigorous research (suitably laced with killer facts) is often essential to building credibility with policy makers, and getting them to put up with public criticism from the campaign (India NREGA study).

Good power analysis is essential (e.g. recognizing that the real blockers of NREGA were those with informal power, not those formally responsible for spending decisions, or targeting the home district of the minister because then he will sit up and take notice). Good campaigns respond to unexpected events and opportunities, such as public scandals (Commonwealth Games corruption in the Indian Dalit campaign), or changes in key individuals (new ministers etc).

Litigation is often central to transparency work, especially when there is an implementation gap – governments failing to implement policies or laws (eg Pakistan earthquake or South Africa child support studies).

National and international NGOs can play an important role in helping civil society organizations learn from each other, both within the country and across borders (eg bringing in US environmental organizations in the Mexico subsidies campaign).

Don't assume that states can deliver what you are demanding - campaigns often have to tackle supply as well as demand, e.g. training up public officials (eg in NREGA study from India).

So much for confirming received wisdom, at least on this blog. Onto the new ideas, which included:

The role of CSOs and/or key individuals in convening academic fora to generate an intellectual head of steam on a particular issue (e.g. Mexico subsidy campaign).

Training and support to the media to enable them to use all the information and analysis generated by the campaigns and laws (transparency is not enough if no-one knows how to use the info).

The fulcrum for a campaign can be quite technical (e.g. ‘budget code 789’ in India, urging the government to identify specific spending on Dalits).

Institutional inertia is strong – they often revert to type after the campaign ends (eg India and NREGA).

Training and supporting ministers/officials in sympathetic ministries to take on internal opponents (typically, Finance) (e.g. South Africa, where research strengthened the hand of internal opponents of the Treasury).

This kind of research, conducted with hindsight via interviews with those involved, has its weaknesses – attributing changes to particular campaigns can be tricky, and hindsight tends to airbrush out the role of random events, serendipity etc and make everything seem a bit more deliberate than it actually was. But a thought-provoking set of case studies nonetheless.

The full list (so far, more on their way) is:

Mexico: Evidence for Change: The Case of Subsidios al Campo in Mexico
India: Samarthan’s Campaign to Improve Access to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in India
South Africa: In the Face of Crisis: The Treatment Action Campaign Fights Government Inertia with Budget Advocacy and Litigation
Argentina: Children’s Right to Early Education in the City of Buenos Aires: A Case Study on ACIJ’s Class Action
India: Tracking Funds for India's Most Deprived: The Story of the National Campaign for Dalit's Human Rights' "Campaign 789"
Pakistan: Earthquake Reconstruction in Pakistan: The Case of the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation's Campaign
Tanzania: Quality of Education Reforms: The Case of HakiElimu's Campaign of 2005-2007
South Africa: Civil Society Uses Budget Analysis and Advocacy to Improve the Lives of Poor Children

And if you don’t have a summer lull in which to read them all, I thought the first two (Mexican subsidies and India NREGA campaigns) were particularly strong.


Picture Credit: The International Budget Partnership

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Thanks gain for the post, Duncan. We also take your 'airbrushing' point seriously. Later this year we will publish 4 impact case studies that were done in 'real time' - external research teams have been following budget advocacy campaigns in Brazil, South Africa, Tanzania and Mexico over the last 3 years. These case studies should reveal more of the twists and turns that make up the reality of most budget advocacy campaigns.

Submitted by Graham Gordon on
Thanks to Duncan for this thoughtful post. The case studies are an interesting read. An additional aspect that stuck out for the Mexico Case study was the sheer uptake of the information on agricultural subsidies and the inability to control how this information was used by different sectors, such as the media. It highlights the complex process of change in transparency and accountability initiatives, as well as the need to have relevant and accessible information for the population to respond. The local power dynamics also come across clearly in some of the studies. These issues are highlighted in a recent article by Tearfund on PETS Committees in Tanzania. See

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