On 14 February 2013 civil society organizations, government representatives, and media from South Asia released the regional results of the Open Budget Survey 2012 at an event in Delhi, India. Every two years the International Budget Partnership conducts the Survey (the first round was in 2006) to measure the openness and accountability of government budget systems and practices around the world. Drawing from the Survey, the IBP calculates the Open Budget Index (OBI), the most comprehensive cross-country measure of public access to information on the receipt and expenditure of public funds available.
South Asia was a solid performer in the OBI 2012 with an average regional score of 55, compared to the global average of 43. As a region, South Asia ranked second only to Western Europe and the United States; however, the difference between the average scores for the two regions was 20 points, indicating that South Asian countries have significant ground to cover to catch up. Still, progress within the region over time has been positive, with impressive growth in some countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose OBI 2012 scores jumped by 38 and 20 points since 2010, respectively. Bangladesh also witnessed noteworthy improvements, whereas India’s and Nepal’s performance, though stable, indicates a need for these governments to step up their efforts to improve. All South Asian countries improved their scores across the four rounds of the Survey except Sri Lanka, which dropped drastically from 67 in 2010 to 46 in 2012.
Among the more troubling findings for the South Asia region were those showing that Pre-Budget Statements were published by only Afghanistan and Pakistan; Afghanistan and India were the only countries to publish Citizens Budgets; and the Executive’s Budget Proposals and other published documents in all South Asian countries lacked important details.
The two-day launch event focused on the oversight role of legislatures and supreme audit institutions (SAI), Citizens Budgets, and public engagement. Overall in South Asia, the oversight provided by SAIs is quite robust, but that of legislatures is weak. Even more disappointing was the poor showing by most of the governments in the region on engaging the public in budget processes, with only two producing Citizens Budgets and few making more than minimal efforts to provide citizens opportunities and mechanisms through which to participate. An example of one government that is bringing its people into budgeting is Nepal, where the SAI is proactively engaging civil society in monitoring various public programs like health and education and collaborating on social audits.
The participants identified what South Asian countries need to do to substantially improve their performance, including:
- take concrete action to embed the principles of oversight and engagement in the budget process – especially legislative and public engagement;
- institutionalize public engagement, which is currently done in an ad hoc fashion;
- produce and publish Pre-Budget Statements and Citizens Budgets in each country; and
- increase the level of detail presented in the eight key budget documents.
The participants unanimously called for strengthening public engagement and participation in all stages of the budget process, and the Survey researchers and government representatives indicated that a lot was already happening in terms of transparency and accountability. However, researchers cautioned that the next step would be a big one, requiring not simply publishing more documents but rather strengthening the depth and quality of information in all of the key budget documents.
Finally, given the growing civil society interest and engagement with subnational budget processes in the region and the many state-level Indian budget groups present, a special session on subnational budget transparency and accountability was organized. For instance, in Bangladesh and India a fair amount of participation in budget planning and formulation happens under decentralized governance structures, but this is not reflected in the Open Budget Survey because it focuses on national budgets. Issues for common action emerged, and the People’s Budget Initiative, a civil society coalition in India, called for improving access to budget information on frontline service delivery so that civil society could monitor them more effectively.
Ravi Duggal - International Budget Partnership