Making Change in Closed Political Environments — what works?

I’m a big fan of the International Budget Partnership, which manages both to get down and dirty in supporting national campaigns and movements for

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budget transparency, and to step back and spot the broader patterns of politics and change. Over the next few months I’m going to be helping them think through their strategy so I’ve been catching up a few recent research papers.

First up was ‘“That’s How The Light Gets In”: Making Change in Closing Political Environments’, which pulls together lessons from 3 case studies (India, Kenya and South Africa) and some broader essays by IBP staff and partners to respond to a profound and disorienting state of shock:

‘Almost overnight our trusted champions of open government in Brazil, India, the Philippines, South Africa, and now the United States were replaced by regimes threatening to reverse years of progress in open data, vigorous citizen participation, and the promise of enhanced government accountability. Democracy is under threat the world over.’

The paper asks the right question ‘How do we advance fiscal accountability in an era of closing government?’ because ‘the budget process is also at the core of democratic practice — and the relationship between citizens and the government. While this process can and often does exclude citizens, it can also be a powerful bridge to help citizens move from disaffection to democratic engagement.’

How to build and buttress that bridge? First, recognize the role of crises: ‘Fiscal and governance crises over the past decades have not slowed the trend toward

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open budgeting. In fact they have enabled some of the greatest leaps in budget transparency and participation.’

IBP ‘sees the light’ in 3 areas of work: ‘refined political strategy, new spaces for impactful work, and new opportunities for powerful alliances’. Some excerpts:

‘Refined Political Strategy

More impactful work in a tougher political environment will require careful attention to local contexts, taking into account political obstacles and unexpected opportunities. For example, a terrible drought in India has made the rural employment scheme vital to a government that otherwise sought to weaken it. Similarly, political violence in Kenya led to a significant decentralization process that has opened up new spaces for vulnerable citizens to contest the budget for people with disabilities.

New Spaces for Impactful Work

At least three new spaces are emerging as opportunities. The first is work on tax and specifically the prevalence of tax havens, illicit flows, and aggressive tax avoidance. These have exploded onto the front pages of newspapers across the globe. At the same time, the Sustainable Development Goals have led donors to pressure countries to replace aid flows with domestic revenues. Although a considerable number of skilled campaigners work on international capital flows, in most parts of the world there is a gap between this global engagement and meaningful civil society participation in revenue debates at the country level. This is a huge opportunity — although it will face organized resistance — for organizations working on national budgets to complement their expenditure work with a greater focus on tax policy and incidence, and the enforcement of tax regimes.

A second area of work with great potential for impact is climate change finance. The emerging opportunity is for expanded civil society engagement at the

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country level where IBP partners are strongest, and most able to work with environmental organizations, to ensure that sufficient funds are dedicated to and reach the most vulnerable communities.

The third new space for traction is work at subnational levels of government, with a focus on service delivery. Powerful connections and real gains are possible at state and local levels, even while the national level of government might become more inaccessible.

New Opportunities for Powerful Alliances

One opportunity for powerful, expanded alliances is between civil society organizations, including budget groups, and supreme audit institutions (SAIs). Collaboration between community groups and SAIs has taken many other forms, from fraud hotlines and community involvement in audit site selection, to the publication of popular versions of audit reports and audits jointly conducted by communities and SAIs. Usually this work has been driven by CSOs. What is new is the much greater openness and initiative emerging from the SAIs themselves. As audit reports gather dust on government shelves, more and more activist auditors are turning to partnerships with civil society to overcome their own constraints in encouraging government responsiveness.

The courts are likely to become an even greater asset to civil society budget work in an era of closed government. Where opportunities for partnerships wane, civil society budget groups have been turning, as a last resort, to litigation to secure or protect gains. There is now a much greater body of knowledge and expertise within the budget and broader fiscal community on litigation.’

Really useful stuff