Last week, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) hosted a very informative session about citizens’ budgets, why they’re important, and how they can increase participation and transparency in budgetary processes in developing countries. A citizens’ budget is a short, easy-to-understand summary of government priorities and spending. It is usually the only budget document created expressly for a government’s citizenry. Ideally, a citizens’ budget illustrates how government spending impacts the daily lives of its citizens and increases transparency and access to budget information.
The key to citizens’ budgets is digestibility. Budget documents are highly technical and usually very long. In many developing countries, budget information is inaccessible, convoluted or entirely unavailable. However, the capacity of civil society to analyze and disseminate digestible budget information is growing. The Malawi Economic Justice Network has taken an active role in creating citizens’ budgets. The Nigerian organization BudgIT has taken to Twitter to provide Nigerians visual budgetary information through infographics. With an increasing understanding of the value of a citizens’ budget, more and more governments are interested in publishing their own. The International Budget Partnership has helped five governments produce citizens’ budgets, and provided technical assistance to others.
While there are no standards regulating length, purpose or content, in order to remain accessible, a citizens’ budget should be short enough to print and distribute throughout the country. It is equally important that it is printed in the most widely-used languages, and include illustrative points for those with limited literacy. Rwanda’s citizens’ budget for the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year is 33 pages long, and uses illustration throughout to clarify the government’s priorities. Approximately 30 percent of adults in Rwanda are illiterate, and these illustrations ensure a broader audience and greater comprehension. It is also much more accessible than the Ministry of Finance’s website, from which you can download the budget –- in 10 separate documents. Kenya’s citizens’ budget is six pages long and communicates government spending largely through charts. Mali’s citizens’ budget document is only two pages, but is chock full of numbers, including the breakdown of how the government spends its money.
For a citizens’ budget to be successful, the IBP recommends that it include an outline of the legislative budget process and key government objectives and new programs. It should explain how revenue collection works in the country –- where the money in the budget comes from –- as well as information about how much is spent in each sector, such as health or education programs. The information provided in citizens’ budgets should be useful for public knowledge and participation, not merely government propaganda. It should create public dialogue, be updated regularly, and provide ways for citizens to continue the conversation or access additional information. This is crucial to create a dynamic and participatory budget process.
While a citizens’ budget is meant to increase public knowledge, it is also a medium through which leaders can communicate their perspective about the budget and priorities to the people. However, the citizens’ budget is too important to die with the democratic cycle, left behind as irrelevant or unimportant after elections and government turnover. It is important that budget watchdog organizations and citizens in developing countries expect this type of transparency in their budget processes, ensuring that a citizens’ budget is produced yearly. The citizens’ budget is one of the eight key budget documents analyzed in the IBP’s Open Budget Survey, the only independent, comparative, regular measure of budget transparency and accountability. We’re excited to see how the rise of the citizens’ budget affects the standings and makes a difference to the delivery of health, education and other services that are essential to the fight against poverty.
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