An inconvenient truth about change


By Flickr user Digital Sextant

What is it about the mention of budgets or spreadsheets that makes people either want to run away or maybe just have a snooze? Budgets have a bit of a reputation for being either a ‘specialist’ issue or, quite simply, just a bit boring. Years of maths homework has certainly led to a similar reaction in me when it comes to anything to do with numbers but I feel the need to speak up in defence of budgets. They’re important to anyone wanting to understand, monitor and/or influence government policies.

It was interesting to see that the World Bank review of the Social Accountability component of the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme in Ethiopia found a similar reluctance among civil society organisations to engage in budget work. Many organisations were keen to work with community score cards or report cards, but far fewer wanted to engage with budgets. Where do budgets get this reputation from and how do we go about changing it?

Understanding budgets is an absolutely crucial element of engaging in policy. We all know that an important factor in determining how effective a policy is is how well it is (or isn’t) implemented. Surely, there’s no point in a superb policy document that is either implemented poorly or isn’t implemented at all?

Well, a key factor to consider when looking at policy implementation is- you guessed it- the budget behind it. The phrase ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ illustrates this well. I remember one member of a provincial youth committee I work with in West Africa telling me how pleased he was to see the wording of a national policy reflect the points young people had been lobbying for. He was less enthused when he saw there was no budget line allocated to achieving it.

Having said all that about the importance of understanding and engaging with budgets as part of policy monitoring, we have to acknowledge that it’s not easy to demonstrate the impact of this work. Open Budgets posted an interesting blog this morning, asking

Should CSO efforts to influence budgets be judged by the effect that they have on government spending, participation and access to information? Is this enough? What if such budget changes don’t end up changing the day to day lives of the poor and marginalized?

These are very valid questions and ones I asked myself recently when working with partners to develop a pilot budget monitoring project in SE Asia. We paused to consider whether it was too ambitious to consider ‘influencing budget processes’ as an objective of this project. Would we consider the project a failure if the partners could not directly influence budgets? For me, the answer is simple: no. However inconvenient it may be, real change takes time. If, as a first step, communities and civil society organisations are demonstrating increased understanding of budget processes and are building stronger relationships with and engaging with government about budgets, I for one would consider this a success.

The real question is perhaps to ask ourselves what we consider impact and at what level we consider change to be valuable? How do we identify and capture the more qualitative evidence that demonstrates the value of working with communities to work with and understand how governments spend their money- and it is their money. Real change takes time. It’s up to us as donors and partners to recognise that and reflect it in the way we work.

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