My arms sink as I try lifting the book in the air to show to participants. This huge yellow-paged tome is the Zambian Government’s official budget document. Hoping to pull out a few nuggets of useful information about current spending priorities, I flick through and am dazzled by chains of long numbers dancing across the page. Scanning the subheadings, I search for at least one term that I recognise. But, it’s no use: it would take a stronger woman than me, and someone with a lot more knowledge of accountancy, to make any use of it. For the ordinary Zambian man or woman wanting to know how the government spends its money and how they benefit, it’s clear that this entry point is inaccessible to all but those with the most advanced technical knowledge.
I’m in Lusaka with civil society organisations who are discussing regional initiatives on Gender Responsive Budgeting (or GRB). GRB is an approach to public budget decision-making which seeks to ensure that spending decisions are aligned to gender equality policies and strategies. In practice GRB means: identifying what the different needs of men and women are; establishing whether existing policies and services address or exacerbate those needs; and monitoring whether public spending is closing this ‘gender gap’. Whilst GRB may help identify the need to budget for women-specific services, such as maternity care, it is more concerned with the needs which arise due to the different social roles of men and women. A woman who missed out on schooling, because as a girl, she was expected to fetch water each morning will have different adult educational needs than a man who, as a boy, never missed class for such household chores. For this reason, GRB advocates that budget decisions should aim to reduce the gender gap, rather than suggesting that resources should be divided equally between males and females.* CAFOD partners Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) and Caritas Zambia long ago identified that decisions about revenue-raising and public spending are key to bringing about development in which all men and women participate. Testament to the fact that CSOs in Zambia have long been advocating for GRB is the fact that today we are joined by a representative of the Ministry of Gender and Child Development who shares news of progress in linking the country’s gender strategy with decisions over resources. However, although the Ministry representative’s enthusiasm is encouraging, no-one from the Ministry of Finance is able to attend the workshop to explain how GRB approaches are changing the way they make decisions. Perhaps more tellingly, the Minister did not once use the words gender, men or women in his 2013 Ministerial Budget address, the theme of which is `Delivering Inclusive Development and Social Justice’. This is significant because whilst those responsible for gender equality can raise the political profile of the issue, very often it is finance ministries who have the most power to decide on the size of the cake and how it should be shared out, when decisions are to be made and by whom.
So a lot of complex calculations, statistics and a degree in finance must be needed before budgets can be made gender sensitive, surely? Wrong. Participants identify that accessible and timely information on budget-setting, sex-disaggregated data, clear decision-making processes and transparent mechanisms to track spend are the building blocks to GRB, not technical analysis. Without this, advocacy on budgets can be a bit like trying to do a jigsaw in the dark – we know the shape of the pieces but don’t know how they fit together, nor what the whole picture should like.
But, surely, if we’re concerned about gender problems, we can simply fund them from a special ring-fenced pot? Unfortunately not, as this can mean that only a few crumbs are left over for gender issues. Gender audits from the region show that all too often gender is only considered in budgets under headings like ‘International Women’s Day Events’ or ‘Women’s Refuge’. Making budgets work for both men and women means that gender concerns and analysis should inform all decisions about public money and that gender policies and strategies are clearly linked up to budgeting processes.
During the workshop participants analyse gender issues in different areas of public spending and examples abound of the different ways in which budget decisions affect women and men, even in apparently gender-neutral sectors. Investment in technical assistance for cash crops tends to benefit women less as they are more often subsistence producers than men. Prioritising policing of borders over reducing domestic violence is shown to have complex gender dimensions. And whilst a public subsidy for new vehicle purchase may have the same fiscal implications as subsidising bus fares, men benefit more as they tend to have the resources with which to buy a car and are less frequent users of public transport than women.
A few days later, I visit Monze, a city near Lusaka, with the outreach team of the JCTR. Here, local leaders come together to try and solve the issues they have identified. Both men and women are present and active in the meeting: a model example of how complex gendered problems can be tackled by civil society and government working together. A problem with noise and other nuisance caused by the flouting of alcohol licensing legislation is identified; the impacts on domestic violence and child nutrition are discussed, and an agreement to tackle the problem sought from the local authorities present. It is striking to see how men and women’s development priorities can be so effectively articulated into decisions about service delivery.However, one wonders just how much more effective it would be if it were to be linked to a process of identifying priorities for public budgets and monitoring them?
Perhaps participants in the workshop back in Lusaka have the answer, suggesting that civil society will only be ensure that budgets are gender responsive when there is supportive legislation in place. The changes they identify that are needed in Zambia are: full implementation of recent decentralisation policy; the introduction of the long-expected Freedom of Information Law; and the passing of the much anticipated Planning and Budgeting Bill. Potentially these measures could ensure that men and women know the amount and nature of resources available, whether public spending is closing the gender gap or not, and be involved in prioritising, monitoring and tracking of spend. Once such an enabling policy framework was in place, it would do much to strengthen governance processes similar to the meeting in Monze, and ensure that the different priorities and needs of men and women, and boys and girls are reflected in decisions about resources.
*For examples of countries where GRB approaches are being developed, check the videos on the UNWomen site.