Can greater transparency in government budgets help solve the global hunger crisis?

Today the 2012 Open Budget Survey was released; at the same time as the iF campaign to end world hunger is being launched. It may seem like these two have little connection, but read on…

The Open Budget Survey is an independent global measure of budget transparency and accountability around the world.

Open Budget Index Country rankings 2012

This year’s findings don’t make particularly happy reading. According to the authors, the International Budget Partnership, “the 2012 Survey reveals that the national budgets of 77 of the 100 countries assessed fail to meet basic standards of budget transparency.” These countries represent half of the world’s population and mean that fewer than half the world’s citizens have access to key documents and information about budget proposals or government spending – they cannot see where the money has come from or where the money is being spent. This lack of transparency gives greater opportunities for corruption and misuse of funds.

The Survey also finds that there governments are guilty of a “widespread failure” to provide sufficient opportunities for citizens and civil society to engage in budget processes.

However, it is not all bad news and the Survey shows that over the past 6 years, most countries involved have made improvements, often simply by putting information into the public domain that is already produced. Change is therefore possible and all countries can quite easily reach high levels of budget transparency and participation.

Farmers in India. Photo: Layton Thompson, Tearfund

Farmers in India. Photo: Layton Thompson, Tearfund

Returning to the IF campaign (full name, “Enough food for everyone iF…”), this seeks to mobilise UK and international action to end global hunger. Laura Taylor has given a good summary of the campaign which, among other things, seeks greater transparency so that ordinary people can follow government revenues and spending and make sure it’s spent on tackling poverty and combating hunger.

That’s where the connection comes. Transparency in government budgets enables citizens to see where money is being spent and helps ensure that the best investments are made, whether they be in health care, education or to promote food security and better nutrition.

One example is the Subsidios al Campo campaign in Mexico, which succeeded in getting the government to publish details of the agricultural subsidies to small-scale farmers. The information showed that many of the subsidies went to the wealthiest 10% of farmers, which led to effective pressure to reform the programme and redirect the spending to those most in need.

The iF campaign is therefore calling for the UK and other G8 governments to take a lead in promoting greater transparency across the board – in tax revenues, in land deals and in budgets. Not all of the G8 members fair well in the Open Budget Survey (although the UK is in third place, behind New Zealand and South Africa). Some of their counterparts in the G20 have even further to go.

The UK has two major opportunities to galvanise support for international action around budget transparency in 2013 – as chair of the G8 and co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. The next Open Budget Survey in 2014 – for which the data will be gathered at the end of this year – will show whether they have been successful or not.

To finish, I echo the words of Warren Krafchik, Director of the International Budget Partnership: “Reforms can be accomplished at little to no financial cost and can benefit billions of people. Good budget practices have been identified and standards have been set. Substantial technical assistance is available. The framework to improve exists – all that is typically missing, in many individual governments, is the political will to act. That must change.”

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