How accountable is your government?

Luis Flores Ballesteros

We are used to cases of lack of accountability in public finance around the world. For example,

  •  Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea purchased a $35 million vacation home for its president in Malibu, California, according to a US Senate investigative committee.  This was $10 million more than the government’s budget showed the country planned to spend on health care for its impoverished population in 1995.
  • Saudi Arabia, which holds an estimated $400 billion in assets from oil profits, makes so little information available that it is not clear what spending is accounted for in public documents and what spending is not reported in public documents. Saudi Arabia publishes almost no budget documents at all, providing only a very scant summary of the budget and some highly aggregated information on the overseas holdings managed by its central bank.
  • As part of the current global commodity boom, China has entered into joint agreements with the governments of Angola, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to develop lucrative oil and copper deposits. Little is known about these agreements, leaving the public in the dark about whether the revenues the governments receive from the projects go into public coffers to be used to benefit the people, or are pocketed by officials.
  • The 2005 peace accord in Sudan mandated disclosure of the amount of oil revenues, but neither the government in Khartoum nor that in Southern Sudan have provided information, leading to suspicion that the money has been used to purchase weapons, not to alleviate poverty. This threatens the stability of the accord.
  • Nicaragua’s government refuses to account for funds from oil-rich Venezuela that apparently have been used for undocumented loans to government-linked companies and to reward them with no-bid contracts for projects being built on public land.
  • In Nigeria, two top officials resigned when it was discovered that they had pocketed unspent funds from the 2007 budget as their end-of-the-year Christmas bonus.

The Open Budget Initiative (OBI) is a global research and advocacy program to promote public access to budget information and the adoption of accountable budget systems.  According to its Open Budget Index 2008, 80 percent of the world’s governments fail to provide adequate information for the public to hold them accountable for managing their money. Nearly 50 percent of 85 countries whose access to budget information was carefully evaluated by the International Budget Partnership provide such minimal information that they are able to hide unpopular, wasteful, and corrupt spending. Indeed, only France, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States make extensive information publicly available as required by generally accepted national (sometimes) and international public finance practices.

Rankings at a glance. The Open Budget Initiative, 2009

Rankings at a glance. The Open Budget Initiative, 2009

Why is accountability in public finance administration important? OBI provides these two examples from India (60) and Mexico (54):


For years, many government officials in India operated in a climate of secrecy, allowing corruption to flourish and public funds to be wasted and misspent. Government engineers, accountants, administrators, project supervisors, auditors, and even anti-corruption officials were often entirely unaccountable to the public.

The secrecy of government operations allowed corruption to continue unchecked. But much of this began to change in India nearly a decade ago as citizens and civil society organizations in India’s largest state, Rajasthan, started to obtain more access to government budgets and other government documents.

In 1994, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an organization of small farmers and workers dedicated to social justice issues, began obtaining and then deciphering the often bewildering budget information provided by the Rajasthan government. After five years of pressure from MKSS the government of the state of Rajasthan finally passed a “right to information” law in 2000. This new law gave the public the right to request information, such as important budget documents, from the state.

Even prior to adoption of the law, MKSS pieced what information it was able to obtain together and started uncovering fraud. In one instance, by combining various documents that detailed the dates that workers were allegedly employed at various project sites, MKSS identified cases of fraud, such as workers shown working at two different sites on the same day. Building on the momentum created by its investigations in these villages, MKSS held public hearings in which public officials were asked to explain the often explosive findings of the testimonies. Stories of corruption, inefficiency in utilization of public funds, and poor planning within public agencies were recounted by speaker after speaker. Workers in projects and residents identified false information contained in public records, and many discussions became heated when public officials tried to defend themselves.

Other organizations in India saw MKSS’s success, and a major movement sprang up to push for access to information, including budget information. This finally forced the national Indian government to pass a right to information law in 2005. Now groups such as MKSS do not need to rely on sympathetic officials or individual state laws to get the information needed to monitor government officials for corruption and misappropriation.

In little over a decade, MKSS has developed into one of India’s most potent social justice movements. The organization has successfully demonstrated the power of budget information as an effective tool to enable citizen participation in governance. Using public hearings (also known as social audits) MKSS enables structured and focused discussions among residents on the funds spent in their communities on government-sponsored development projects.


Far too often, the joys of a new baby are tragically cut short for many Mexican families, when a mother succumbs to hypertension, hemorrhaging or other life-ending complications related to pregnancy. While the Mexican government has long voiced its commitment to improving healthcare and decreasing maternal mortality, the death rate hovered at approximately 6.2 women’s deaths per 10,000 live births for more than a decade (from 1990 to 2003). Poor women in rural areas were disproportionately affected.

In the late 1990s, a series of reports revealing the existence of secret presidential slush funds galvanized civil society groups in Mexico to push for increased public access to information, including increased access to information on the Mexican government’s budget. By 2002, a law guaranteeing citizen’s rights to information had been passed and a highly-respected commission to oversee its implementation established.

The next year, Fundar, a civil society organization based in Mexico City, was convinced that resources in the national budget were not being allocated effectively to combat the loss of women’s lives during childbirth. Fundar was able to use budget information that had previously been unavailable to the public to identify a lack of funding for emergency obstetric care throughout the country. Armed with the new information, Fundar, along with a coalition of other nongovernmental organizations, met with policymakers to argue for specific funding allocations, emphasizing that increased funds for emergency health care would directly benefit pregnant women, especially those from poorer, indigenous communities.Since 1999, the Fundar Center for Research and Analysis has monitored public funds in Mexico as a way of advancing democracy. Fundar has developed a unique role in Mexico’s civil society as a professional, research-based organization that aims to participate in social justice debates by highlighting the importance of budget transparency to the expansion of democracy.

Fundar’s strategy of advocating for increased public access to government budget information at the national and local level, coupled with its clear and relevant analyses, has built a greater understanding of the connection between the budget and its impact on people’s lives in Mexico.


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