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New Horizon: Budget consultations in Covid-19 times

By Yollander Millin : Economic Ambassador

THE budget consultation meetings for 2022 have already begun in the country and it is imperative to advocate for and to ensure that participatory budgeting is possible even in these pandemic times. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which the community members partake in the decision-making process on how to spend part of public funds.

In the past year, this process was evidently disturbed by Covid-19 and the government was desperately trying to find ways that did not expose the citizens to the virus or allow it to spreadespecially considering that the at the time of the 2021 budget consultations, there were no vaccines hence the notion that the 2021 budget consultations were not as participative.

2022 Bulawayo City Council physical budget consultation meeting on the 30th of September, as demanded by the citizens, in place of the announced virtual consultation meetings that were viewed as ineffective and non-inclusive

Going forward, adjustments have been made and efforts towards co-existing with the virus have been put in place, with the Covid-19 vaccination rollout in progress towards the targeted heard immunity.

Budget participation should be representative of the population, and involve meaningful discourse that shapes a way forward, speaking to the exacerbated social and economic distress.

It should be inclusive of the views of all groupings, particularly the marginalised like women, youth, rural folk and people with disabilities, ensuring that no one is left behind, which is the motto under the guiding policy NDS1.

Budget participation is important in developing countries like Zimbabwe as a means of enhancing performance, accountability of administration and improving social justice.

Citizen participation makes local service delivery more efficient and effective and needs to be prioritised in Covid-19 times where the social and economic conditions have been complicated by the pandemic. There is need to consult and capture the true lived experiences directly from to the people.

Vulnerable groups that have been pushed further into poverty by the Covid-19 pandemic cry for equal opportunity to take part in the 2022 budget consultation process

An analysis of the Zimbabwean economy shows that livelihoods were disrupted and the numbers of people under extreme poverty began to expand reaching an overall of 49% of the population as recorded by the World Bank in June 2021.

Further, the provision of basic public services like health, education and social protection was disrupted, hence compromising the already crippled situation, affecting poor citizens the most and exposing these vulnerable groups to inequalities, food insecurity and general deterioration of livelihoods.

The government and all its development partners including Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), Civil Society Organisations(CSO) and Community-Based Organisations(CBOs) need to make deliberate investment into ensuring adequate access to the 2022 budget allocation for the Covid-19 response.

Strides need to betaken to allow for the protection of livelihoods and thismeans CSOs and NGOs must take into account government’s concerns and attitudes to active citizen participation, and find ways to reduce costs while increasing benefits of the process.

Generally, the following has been noted as factors that need to be addressed in order for the wins to be maximised:

  • Government administrators are perceived as having a great deal of control over how participatory activities are structured, who to include, and how much power to share.This means the process of consultation is viewed as government controlled and those who attend and take part operate within the decorum set or under the control of the administrators. Some people have often indicated that the administrators discourage submissions that alter or that deviate from the proposed as they would have worked hard to produce it. Not much information is shared prior to the consultations and not ample preparation time is allowed, stripping influential power from the citizens and retaining it under the administration. In previous consultations, the need to ensure that the process is accessible and inclusive has been raised..New and deliberate measures need to be put in place in view of Covid-19.
  • Government officials may be hostile if they see participation as a threat, or merely skeptical, seeing participation as symbolic and expensive.The members of the public have often made indication that administrators can be hostile during the consultation process and often dismissing views as irrelevant or as not worthy to pursue, which make them lose confidence and fail to have meaningful participation or contributions.
  • Women have also complained of not being awarded equal opportunity to air their concerns and the engagements in the end become an act that does not collect the views of the people but rather held as mere protocol. The notion that budget consultation meetings are an unnecessary expense has often surfaced, taking away from the true aim and intention of the process.
  • Support for participation coming from political parties and NGOs with other intentions. The citizens have been accused of attending the budget consultation meetings to push political narratives, having been mobilised to do so by opposition parties that wish to come into power and therefore sabotaging the progress of the consultation meetings. Some are said to have the backup of politically inspired NGOs who will offer incentives for the citizens to push particular narratives that may be divorced from their needs on the ground, which disrupts the intention of the process of consultation, which is to inform authorities on the priority areas for the upcoming year.
  • Administrators have justified concerns over expense, being truly representative, and poor quality of decision outcomes arising from the public’s lack of technical knowledge. There is a genuine concern over the aspect of making the process truly representative and inclusive as there is no  budget that is provided that can allow the administrators to travel to all locations, to translate all the information to various languages to suit the diverse needs of different communities and to spread the process across a lengthy time. The public also lacks the technical knowledge of what is expected of them during the consultations and without the intervention of CSOs and NGOs who assume the role of information dissemination, the process becomes protocol and viewed as a waste of resources.
  • Donors,NGOs, CSOs and CBOs often overlook the importance of government administrations in implementing participation.The process of encouraging the citizens to take part in budget consultation meeting is a multi-stakeholder initiative that should include the government departments but the latter are often ignored from the process which leads to the notion that the former would be having ulterior motives in their engagements with the public. As a result, friction emerges between these bodies and affects the quality of the annual budget consultation meetings.

There is therefore a need for the government departments responsible, to work together with CSOs, NGOs, CBOs and other developmental partners to ensure that there is progressive participation that can provide information that improves technical or allocative efficiency, offer innovative solutions to the afore mentioned problematic factors, and raise the overall acceptanceof programmes.

In most instances cited as case studies of success by the World Bank in its evaluation of citizen participatory budget consultation meetings in pandemic times, it was noted that all stakeholders need to play their part, with NGOs and CSOs taking the leading roles inanalysing the budget and mobilising the citizens.

These NGOs, CSOs and CBOs should seek to represent the poor, and disseminate their views to the government as feedback, and complementing efforts where the government lacks capacity.

The recommendations would be for all stakeholders to work together putting the citizens at the fore front such that the 2022 budget consultation meetings capture the views of the people.

Consultations need to be inclusive and make use of both the physical and virtual space for maximised results.

  • Millin is a Bulawayo social and economic justice ambassador. These weekly New Horizon articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society  and past president of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in Zimbabwe. — kadenge.zes@gmail.com/ cell: +263 772 382 852

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