World Bank Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Sri Mulyani Indrawati cheered the progress of developing countries in budget transparency Thursday, while also cautioning that there is much work to be done. Indrawati’s remarks introduced a spirited discussion hosted by the World Bank on the latest results from the International Budget Partnership’s (IBP) Open Budget Survey, a regularly produced index of countries’ transparency and openness to citizen engagement.
The 2015 survey found that only four of 103 countries – Brazil, Norway, South Africa and the U.S. – achieved acceptable results in transparency, citizen engagement and oversight of the budget process. It found that 32 countries failed on all three measures. But income wasn’t always a predictor of success.
“Note that of the 30 top performing countries, 14 are developing countries,” Indrawati said, adding that the survey showed important gains in some of the world’s least transparent countries. In opening the discussion, she drew on her own experience as Minister of Finance in Indonesia.
“As a former finance minister I can tell you that making a budget more transparent may be the right thing to do, but it comes with challenges, including pushback from elites and other groups who have no interest in accountability or exposing themselves to the scrutiny of citizens and oversight bodies,” she said.
Vivek Ramkumar, director of international advocacy and the Open Budget Initiative at IBP, said one primary finding is that major gaps still exist in the amount of budget information available to citizens. But there is also more positive news: budget transparency is improving overall. Finally, citing an example from Ghana, where budget documents were not always available year-over-year, he cautioned that improvements do not always stick.
The discussion panel included government representatives from the Philippines and the US, as well as Mario Marcel, senior director of the World Bank Group’s Governance Global Practice; Warren Krafchik, executive director of the International Budget Partnership; and Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and advocacy at Oxfam America.
Neil Cole, executive secretary for the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative, praised improvements in Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but puzzled over a seeming stagnation in Kenya. Florencio “Butch” Abad, the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management in the Philippines, said improvements in his country’s scores are a credit to the government’s commitment to transparency, but also the hard work of civil society.
Marcel said that budget assistance is one of the most active roles of the World Bank, with experts fielding many requests for assistance. Recalling his experiences as budget director in Chile, he said that when he took over the position and undertook an effort to increase citizen participation, the dictatorship hadn’t released budget data in more than a decade.
“Budget transparency is also something that I take very personally,” he said. And through his experience in Chile he affirmed that it was much better to engage citizens in the process – by responding to their concerns and by publishing budget information widely – than to stick to old habits and keep information inside the government. “Making budgets matter is the first step to making budgets more participatory and to making people take interest in them.”