“Cut defense!” “Cut Medicare!” “Cut farm subsidies!” If you’ve tuned into CSPAN or cable news lately, you recognize those refrains from the ongoing Congressional debate about avoiding the “sequestration” cuts set to go into effect March 1. You may have grown tired of this seemingly endless debate, which Congress heartlessly prolonged back in December when it decided to postpone dealing with the sequestration cuts for two additional months.
For all its frustrations, and notwithstanding serious downside risks to much needed spending on foreign assistance, there’s a silver lining to the sequestration debate: it represents a democratic discussion about the appropriate spending of government revenues. Put more simply, it signals that citizens are holding the government accountable. At its most basic level – once you strip away the partisan politics – the sequestration debate is proof that budget transparency matters. If we didn’t know how much the government was spending on such things as defense, health or subsidies, a dialogue about government spending priorities could never occur.
What happens when governments are secretive about how their money is handled. Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and her 1,000-shoe collection. Photo credit: The Guardian.
In places like Equatorial Guinea or Myanmar, public debates about government spending do not occur. There’s simply nothing to debate, because citizens in both countries have no idea how their governments are spending public money. Neither publishes a single government budget.
Unfortunately, they have lots of company when it comes to opaqueness. Of 100 countries surveyed by the Open Budget Partnership in 2012, 77 failed to meet basic standards of transparency and accountability in publishing national budgets.
What happens when governments are secretive about how money is handled? Lots of exciting things:
-Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1965 to 1997, used the presidential jet to fly flocks of sheep from Venezuela to his African ranch. It’s estimated that he stole roughly $5 billion, nearly half of the $12 billion in aid money received from the International Monetary Fund during his 32-year reign. Today, the average Congolese citizen survives on just $231 per year.
-Imelda Marcos used some of the estimated $5 to $10 billion stolen from the Philippine people during the 14-year presidency of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, to amass an impressive collection of world class art (including works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh), property, jewelry, and more than 1000 pairs of shoes. Nearly 27 years later, the state is still trying to locate and recover the stolen assets.
-Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the son of President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and the country’s 2nd vice-president (appointed by his father), allegedly spent more than $300 million on luxury goods around the world between 2000 and 2011 using money stolen from the people of Equatorial Guinea. The U.S. Justice Department is trying to seize many of his U.S. assets, which include a $30 million Malibu mansion, a $38 million Gulfstream jet, and nearly $3 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a diamond-studded Bad Tour glove. Last year, French authorities seized Teodoro’s 101-room mansion in a chic Parisian neighborhood, along with millions of dollars of high-end artwork, furniture, and wine. Meanwhile, in a country that boasts the highest per capita income in Africa (more than $27,000), most citizens lack reliable access to electricity, drinking water, and health services.
There are countless examples of the systemic corruption that occurs when governments refuse to share budget information with ordinary citizens. The point is, budget transparency is critical if governments are to be held accountable for the wealth and well-being of their people.
The road to development begins and ends with transparency.
Help make our next global plan to fight poverty even better than before. Tell world leaders to make our post-2015 UN Millennium Development Goals transparent, accountable and representative of the people!