NGOs Must Participate Now to Influence Pro-Poor Outcomes
NGOs and broader civil society tend to focus on the budget when it is announced by the Minister of Finance annually. While this is an important time to highlight a civil society perspective, especially given the attendant media focus - for stronger impact, NGOs' engagement with the process should start long before the February bonanza.
While the "budget speech" is still fresh in our minds and as a follow up to an earlier article produced for the SANGONeT portal, Charlene Houston of Participation Junction highlights some useful ideas for engaging in a structured manner with the budgeting cycle. Read her article below.
Participating in the Budget Cycle
NGO participation in the budget would be to influence decision-making in the interest of each organisation's vision for the sector of society they work in. Acting collectively always has great potential to strengthen impact. It is encouraging to note that there are a few NGOs who participate, in a systematic way, in the Budget Cycle throughout the year. However, their voices could be strengthened by an increase in the number of NGOs taking an interest in this issue - there is still power in numbers!
That said, participation does require some effort. Similar to any other lobbying activity, a key to success is knowing the decision maker's agenda in relation to the issue. For example, if you are in the housing sector, you need to understand the Minister of Housing's agenda before you can motivate for the decisions you deem necessary.
Once you understand her agenda, you are able to package your message to her in ways that will draw her attention, help her see why she should respond positively and how it takes her own agenda forward.
What Happens on National Budget Day?
In February each year, the "Budget Day" is the day when the Minister of Finance introduces 2 bills in Parliament:
The Appropriation Bill which sets out the budgets for national departments (Budget Votes)
Division of Revenue Bill which provides a breakdown of transfers between spheres of government, between provinces and municipalities
The bills then go through the usual procedure of being discussed by the relevant committee in parliament before being finalised. There a few differences between these bills, known as money bills and the usual legislation. One such difference is that the rules of Parliament stipulate a specific timeframe within which they have to be dealt with. There is room for an extension, but deliberations cannot go on for months as with other legislation. This is no doubt linked to the fact that the funds required for service delivery and other state obligations cannot be released unless these bills are ratified.
As explained in a previous article, the budget is a process with National Budget Day as one element of an ongoing cycle that can be seen as consisting of two phases.
The drafting phase (taking place over 12 - 18 months) and the legislative phase (see below) takes 3 - 4 months.
During deliberations, several parliamentary committees invite public input through Budget Hearings. From our observations, there are only a few NGOs and braoder civil society organisations who participate in this process. Even fewer organisations bother to scrutinise the Budget Vote for the Department affecting their sector.
While the legislative phase has constraints and limitations, it is an important time for NGOs to listen to the arguments presented by the Ministers relevant to their work, to study the information, including strategic plans and to note the indicators for success. This will provide NGOs with useful tools for monitoring implementation and will form the basis of critical feedback to the parliamentary committee as it carries out its oversight role during and at the end of the financial year.
This information is also the basis for engaging with the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), which is released around October each year. The MTBPS is part of the Medium term Economic Framework (MTEF) which increases scope to influence the budget over the long term by covering a 3 year period. The MTBPS therefore looks at the current financial year, as well as the following two years. During the legislative phase the focus is only on the current year's budget.
In concluding, it is important to note that the Budget Cycle has a number of phases. Timing and targeting is everything in advocacy so specific tactics must be used at the right time, and during the right phase. To ensure that tactics are not a waste of resources, they must be part of an overall strategy to bring about change in the Budget cycle. This means that participation in the Budget Cycle will be more than an annual visit to the gates of Parliament but will be a host of purpose driven activities that are undertaken throughout the cycle.
- Charlene Houston, Participation Junction.