HomeAnalysisZim’s budget transparency given a thumbs up, but . . .

Zim’s budget transparency given a thumbs up, but . . .

Pepukayi Chivore
ZIMBABWE continues to make significant improvements on budget transparency with the country scoring 59 out of 100 in the 2021 International Budget Partnership Open Budget Survey (OBS), up from 49 out of 100 in 2019.

Zimbabwe is now ranked number three in Africa after South Africa and Benin and number 41 out of 120 countries surveyed in 2021. In the 2019 survey, Zimbabwe was number six in Sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe’s score of 59 is well above the global average score of 45 and the Sub-Saharan Average of 33.

The ranking for public participation, however, took a nosedive to 19 out of 100, down from 33 out of 100 in 2019. This implies that the government should do more in providing the public with opportunities to engage in the budget process.

The budget oversight by the legislature (Parliament of Zimbabwe) and the Auditor General is, however, still limited and ranked 48 out of 100, an improvement from 41 out of 100 in 2019.

The Open Budget Survey (OBS) is a global research and advocacy programme aimed at promoting public access to budget information and the adoption of accountable budget systems. Initiated by the Parliament (IBP), OBS is an independent, objective, comparative and fact-based research instrument that uses internationally accepted criteria to assess public access to central government budget information; formal opportunities for the public to participate in the national budget process; and the role of budget oversight institutions such as the legislature and auditor in the budget process.

A transparency score of 61 or above indicates a country is likely publishing enough material to support informed public debate on the budget. OBS evaluates public access to key national budget information, opportunities for public participation in budget processes and the role of formal oversight institutions.

The OBS is an important basis for formulating strategies to strengthen the interaction between governments and citizens. High levels of transparency, appropriate checks and balances, and opportunities for public participation increase confidence in government and representative democracy.

International investors also use these indices to gauge good governance (fiscal transparency, accountability and security of investments). Improvement in the OBS scores motivates better informed public debates in pursuit of policies that improve people’s lives.

It is also worth noting that budget transparency and strong oversight are powerful disincentives for officials to misuse or misappropriate funds, reducing the likelihood of corruption and improving efficient use of resources.

This helps generate higher revenues for governments since citizens are more likely to pay taxes if they trust that their money will be well spent.

The 2021 OBS came at a time when accountable and inclusive public budgeting is more urgent than ever. Countries around the globe are facing profound governance challenges ranging from natural disasters (droughts and floods) to conflicts including the recent Russia and Ukraine conflict.

Determining how public funds are raised and spent — including what taxes to levy and on whom, what services to provide and how much debt to take on — impacts everyone.

Democratic governance is meaningless if government, at all levels, does not ensure an effective and fully informed public participation in decision-making.

In Zimbabwe, the Constitution enjoins the state as well as all institutions and agencies of government at every level to involve the public in all developmental issues. Section 13(2) of the constitution mandates the state to ensure rapid and equitable development and make measures to “ . . . involve the people in the formulation and implementation of development plans and programmes that affect them”.

Parliament, in particular, is mandated by Section 141 of the Constitution to ensure public access and involvement in Parliament business.

The significance of citizen engagement in the process of policy formulation is rooted in among others, the fact that public policy outputs and effects touch on those to whom the policy is targeted.

Decisions about public funds and the degree to which they will be used to finance the delivery of basic services people need to thrive, will disproportionately affect populations that are already underserved. How these decisions are made can help promote social cohesion and strengthen democratic engagement.

The survey, which is conducted in 120 countries, is completed by local civil society groups or independent researchers, and it encompasses their responses to objective, fact-based questions.

Each country’s results are reviewed by an anonymous expert, and governments are invited to provide their comments.  The assessment covers all four stages of the budget process: formulation, approval, execution and oversight. The 2021 OBS is the eighth round of the Survey, with earlier assessments occurring in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

It is a well-known axiom that accountable budgets rest on three pillars, Transparency, Public participation and Formal oversight. Each of these pillars is essential to effective and accountable budgeting. The absence of (or weakness in) one pillar can undermine the entire open budget system. This can have an impact on the delivery of public services.

Budget transparency refers to the extent and ease with which citizens can access information about and provide feedback on government revenues, allocations, and expenditures. People are able to judge whether or not their government officials are good stewards of public funds. This part of the OBS assesses the online availability, timeliness, and comprehensiveness of eight key budget documents using 109 equally weighted indicators and scores each country on a scale of 0 to 100.

A transparency score of 61 or above indicates a country is likely publishing enough material to support informed public debate on the budget. Zimbabwe has a transparency score of 59 (out of 100).

The OBS also assesses the formal opportunities offered to the public for meaningful participation in the different stages of the budget process.

In that regard, Zimbabwe has a public participation score of 19 (out of 100). This score fell drastically from 33 out of a 100 in 2019 which was the best in Africa to number two after Zambia (24 out of a 100) and compares with South Africa at 19.

The country is doing well during the budget approval stage with a score of 89 out of a 100 but is not providing opportunities for the public to participate during the execution and audit stage of the budget. In the drafting stage, very few opportunities exist and the country scored 13 out of a 100.

This is then averaged to 19 out of a 100. To improve on this score, the Ministry of Finance should pilot mechanisms to ensure budget monitoring and expenditure tracking by the public during budget implementation.

The ministry should also expand mechanisms and platforms during budget formulation to engage with vulnerable and underrepresented communities, directly or through civil society organisations representing them.

Zimbabwe’s Parliament has established public hearings related to the consultations and approval of the annual budget, but should also prioritise holding of public hearings on the Audit Report and allow members of the public or civil society organisations to testify during these hearings.

Moreover, there is a need to increase geographic coverage during its budget consultations and possibly ride on IT platforms to widen the coverage.

The OBS examines the extent to which legislatures and the Auditor-General provide oversight in addition to collecting supplementary information on independent fiscal institutions (Budget Offices).

The legislature and the Auditor-General in Zimbabwe, together, provide limited oversight during the budget process, with a composite oversight score of 48 (out of 100). Taken individually, the Legislative oversight is limited with a score of 42 while the Audit oversight is regarded as adequate with a score of 61.

The establishment of the Budget Office in Parliament as well as other recent initiatives such as sector specific pre-budget consultations by Parliament, have gone some way towards improving the country’s ranking.

Zimbabwe can, however, further improve its score by merely publishing online the reports that different institutions are generating for internal use. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development should include in the Annual Economic and Fiscal Review Report detailed actual outcomes for expenditures, comparisons between borrowing estimates and actual outcomes and comparisons between planned non-financial outcomes and actual outcomes.

The ministry also needs to improve the comprehensiveness of the Citizens Budget and Mid-Year Review.

  • Chivore is an economist based in Harare. He is an expert in Public Finance Management who writes in his individual capacity. — pchivore@gmail.com. These weekly New Perspectives articles published in the Zimbabwe Independent are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — kadenge.zes@gmail.com or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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