ELLA Expert Review: Budget and Public Policies
ELLA Expert Reviews: As part of ongoing efforts to ensure quality in our research and communications, the ELLA team asks recognised experts to conduct reviews of the knowledge materials in a given theme and produce a short written response. The purpose is to highlight a range of distinct perspectives amongst experts in the field and link readers with additional research, cases and arguments that the original ELLA materials may not cover.
In the spirit of discussion and debate, we encourage you to share your own comments about the ELLA materials and the review in the comments section below.
The ELLA Guide: Improving Policy Impact in Latin America though the Budget is a clear, informative and pedagogic approach to regional good practice in increasing efficiency in the use of public funds. It provides very strong examples of how states can implement internal mechanisms to allow its public financing to go even further in terms of reaching beneficiaries. It also pays special attention to examples of how citizens can get involved in overseeing the budget.
The Guide, however, may give the impression that the situation in Latin America is quickly improving in the area of budgeting and public policies. In particular, it tells about the more than 2,500 local governments that have implemented participatory budgetary processes, an initiative that was first implemented in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Knowledgeable actors from the region may recognise this as an important advance compared to what occurred before in terms of governance and budgeting. But for readers less familiar with Latin America, the tone may give the impression that the continent is undergoing radical reforms that are changing the entire governance landscape. It is true that some of the experiences are innovative and have been replicated elsewhere. And some countries have been much better than others in strengthening their institutions, with Chile and Brazil being the best examples. The Porto Alegre story is well known worldwide and many other municipalities have implemented some kind of participation mechanism in the design of the budget, as the study explains, but the wider picture shows that we cannot be so optimistic.
Governments are frequently good at advertising improvements, but in practice, these reforms are not often transformative. As it is often explained in the ELLA materials, Latin America is particularly good in recognising rights, but very weak in implementing those rights. Human rights treaties are signed very quickly by our countries, and national and local constitutions are extremely generous with economic and social rights, but these inclusions do not mean much in practice. Something similar may be happening with some of the mechanisms that are mentioned in the Guide. The fact that a regulation exists does not mean that there is compliance in implementing it. And although it may be better to have a reform on paper rather than not, the budget is still – very broadly speaking – an obscure and technical matter far apart from citizens. Even public administrators whose offices depend on the decisions taken during budgeting processes do not completely understand where the relevant discussions take place. A follow-up to the Guide could include a qualitative analysis to measure the actual implementation of the mechanisms established on paper.
The Guide has a separate section on inequality and particularly on gender-sensitive budgets and budgeting with a human rights approach. As our region is the most unequal in the world, which means that some countries have GDPs large enough to satisfy the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) for their entire population if public resources were distributed more equally, it would be interesting to have a broader section on this issue, and particularly on poverty in the region. It would be useful to better understand what can be done about ESCR and poverty via improvements in budgetary processes.
Many human rights activists in Latin America, as in many developing countries, have never seen a budget in their lifetime. On the other hand, most budget experts have never seen a human rights treaty, much less a protocol. Nevertheless, these disciplines are so linked that it is difficult to understand one of them in-depth without the other. In fact, they are like two souls that need to become one.
International human rights treaties have proliferated in Latin America, maybe even more so than in other regions. Most countries sign each United Nations treaty that becomes available and the respective facultative protocol. The Organization of American States also has many relevant agreements and specific offices that focus on implementation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Court are the most active regional human rights bodies in the developing world. Implementing those rights is, of course, a completely different story and budgetary processes, which include relevant actors like legislatures and supreme audit institutions, should play a key role in it. Broadly speaking, the region has frail experience in monitoring and a weak role played by public actors like lawmakers, judges, prosecutors or ombudspersons in auditing the value for money of expenditures.
Here I offer some comments on the four Briefs developed on this theme:
This Brief focuses more specifically on concrete experiences and gives some answers to questions mentioned earlier from the Guide. But it should be noted that the information contained in this section may not be sufficiently updated, though maybe there are not enough studies that concentrate on the follow up after the first years of implementation. Again, from the perspective of potentially strong regulations but weak implementation, it seems to me to portray participatory budgeting in an idealised manner; a more critical voice may be lacking.
The participatory Mexico City experience on the incorporation of a human rights perspective in the local budget is ground breaking. As the Brief highlights, this is completely innovative and the experience should be followed very closely. The government of Mexico City is, perhaps, the most progressive jurisdiction in the region, with abortion and homosexual marriages as recent legal provisions. The Brief could perhaps be enhanced by explaining with greater detail how offices which already are related with human rights, such as social services, improved their approach to human rights thanks to the initiative. Also, while it focuses on the positive aspects of the programme, it could be interesting to also discuss the challenges the initiative has faced.
This Brief portrays a key issue: how Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) play a key role in monitoring budget spending. Overall it gives a very clear picture of new developments in the area. In the final section, it explains how the regional body on SAIs (OLACEF) is performing in order to improve efficiency and openness of these institutions. Strategically, this last section could be expanded because OLACEF needs to perceive that it is being monitored by civil society organisations, which are interested in the strengthening of this body.
This is a useful document because it summarises a whole body of practical work and literature into just a few pages. The one thing that could be added, from my perspective, is the usefulness of this instrument to advocate against governments that are not receptive to these types of indexes. It could also be particularly interesting to offer examples of good practices in successfully ‘shaming’ these administrations in regional or global arenas.
 Here I will highlight just a few additional resources. For an experience in participatory oversight, see this publication (Spanish only) from Argentina: ACIJ. Planificación Participativa en la Auditoría General de la Nación (Participatory Planning in the Auditor General's Office. ACIJ, Buenos Aires. For a good overview of experiences in 10 Latin American countries, see: Santiso, C. 2006. Improving Fiscal Governance and Curbing Corruption: How Relevant are Autonomous Audit Agencies? Technical Note NT/02/06, Fundación CILAE, online publication.
 In this regard, see this initiative joining together OLACEF with CSOs from the region.
Ezequiel Nino is a lawyer from the University of Buenos Aires, holding an LLM from New York University and a Master’s Degree in International Relations. He is co-founder and co-director of Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (Civil Association for Equality and Justice - ACIJ), an Argentinean CSO that promotes the strengthening of democratic institutions and the protection of minorities. He is also a professor of constitutional law at the University of Palermo. He is the co-author of a book on class actions and several public interest law articles, and writes regularly for national newspapers.
Other ELLA knowledge materials relating to Budget and Public Policies:
GUIDES AND BRIEFS
LEARNING ALLIANCE HIGHLIGHTS