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Civil society, budget monitoring and policy influence

Time (GMT +00) 16:30 18:00


Mark Robinson - Head of Profession for Governance and Conflict, UK Department for International Development (DFID)

Paolo de Renzio - ODI Research Associate and Oxford University

Warren Krafchik - Director, International Budget Partnership (IBP)


John Young - Director of Programmes, Research and Policy in Development Group (RAPID), Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Mark Robinson started the event by arguing that budget transparency is more than a narrowly technical issue – it is fundamentally important for the poor. It is important to popularise budgets and draw attention to initiatives such as the International Budget Partnership (IBP).

Budgeting for the Poor, the book being launched at this event, explores the transparency and accountability of public budgeting with case studies drawn from six countries. The countries of study were deliberately selected as examples of successful interventions by civil society organisations (CSOs) over at least five years. The intention was not to adopt a scientifically rigorous approach capable of producing hard generalisations beyond the specific country context. Instead, the researchers set out to collect detailed stories of success in CSO budget advocacy and to report the critical levers – in these particular contexts – behind success stories. The research measures non-governmental public action on budget processes, priorities and expenditure outcomes. It encompasses a wide spectrum of organisations who, in turn, worked with a wide range of actors.

The research sought out changes in budget allocation as a result of interventions by CSOs. And they did find some instances of changes in expenditure priorities, albeit sometimes relatively small or specific in nature. In particular:

  • There was a ten-fold increase in spending on reproductive health care in Mexico, although tracking how this money was subsequently spent at sub-national level proved problematic.
  • In South Africa, IDASA managed to increase resources for child protection services.
  • In Gujarat, CSO work improved the efficiency of resource use on tribal welfare.

The research also finds evidence of greater efficiency of resource use and reduced corruption as a result of resource tracking. In particular:

  • There was reduced misallocation of resources for local community infrastructure in Uganda due to the Uganda Debt Network.
  • Improved efficiency of resource us through local Panchayat councils in India with a virtuous circle of advocacy and accountability.

The research finds that CSOs promoted three main types of activity:

  • Budget awareness: improved understanding of budget data for legislators and other CSOs.
  • Budget transparency: independent scrutiny, dissemination and improved access to government data.
  • Participation in the budget process: improved legislative engagement, some engagement by local citizens in deliberation of budget policies. On this point, it is difficult to mobilize large numbers of people to participate in the budget process. The key instead has been widening legislative engagement with the budget – often only a small group of legislative actors are interested in budget scrutiny.

The critical levers for successful CSO budget interventions identified in the research are as follows:

  • Quality of policy analysis: Quality analysis and timely and effective dissemination of budget information improves legitimacy of applied budget work.
  • Alliances in civil society: Critical importance of broader alliances in civil society, including the media.
  • Allies with political insiders: Quality of relationships established with policy makers and legislators
  • The budget process (a structural condition): depth and extent of legislative engagement in budget deliberation. Note here though that there are quite strong limitations on the power of legislators to shape and change allocations in the budget.
  • Openness: Openness and flexibility of the budget process.

Overall, national and local budget analysis is a powerful tool to strengthen policy engagement and advocacy. Relationships CSOs are able to build with civil society actors, wider social movements, the media and politicians are critical to success. Advice and insights provided by an international network such as the International Budget Project can strengthen technical content and impact of CSO work.

Paolo de Renzio presented on lessons from the six CSOs in the study and also talked about implications for donor agencies. He highlighted five key lessons from the research:

  • Diversity of environments and institutions: CSO budget work is possible in a wide variety of contexts, both in terms of environments (LMIs, LICs, post political transition) institutional actors (from academic institutions to social movements) and approaches (training, coalitions of partners on a specific issue, specific targeting of government actors).
  • Sophisticated approach for long-term change: Examples of changes in hard allocation of public resources were rarer than advocacy and training examples. In cases where a high level of impact was achieved, organizations linked quality research, advocacy and coalition building in a sophisticated long-term strategy.
  • Centrality of relationships: One of the key drivers of capacity to influence was a CSO’s ability to establish a wide network of relationships among other CSOs, with different parts of the executive, with the legislature and with the media.
  • A mantra of ‘accuracy, timeliness and accessibility’: Budget information had to be accurate (evidence based and non-controversial/disputable information), timely (right point of policy cycle), accessible (speak the language of the audience that it is targeting)
  • Capacity and leadership: Technical skills to crunch budget numbers needs to be combined with strong advocacy skills at leadership level. The most successful CSOs recruited, trained and retained good internal capacity (good budget analysts are often poached by ministries of finance!).

As regards the role of donors, Paolo highlighted the role donors play in:

  • Supporting governments to open up to civil society: By putting pressure on governments to put budget information into the public domain.
  • Being more transparent themselves: In many aid dependent countries one of the binding constraints to increased budget transparency is donor behaviour through non disclosure of information and fragmentation of public budgets. Their behaviour can often undermine domestic accountability.
  • Providing long-term programmatic support: Budget work requires a long-term form of support that allows CSOs to build substantial capacity, based on programmatic vision. If it receives fragmented project funding which does not allow for a more strategic approach, donors can undermine this.

How should donors select the most effective organisations to support? What should donor criteria be? Good candidate CSOs should have a credible advocacy strategy linking their work to that of others, they should have formed linkages and networks with other actors and have a credible organisation (quality of leadership, authoritativeness and leadership quality).

Warren Krafchik offered some reflections on the ‘budgeting for the poor research’ as well as on the IBPs broader programme of work. He emphasised that a key finding of the research is that civil society budget work can change budget outcomes. Ten or more years ago it would have been much harder to make such a claim. The original IBP model involved supporting one CSO per country to behave like a think tank and focus on budget analysis across the whole of government and to engage with the legislature. While this model remains, the IBP has added to this model another whole series of budget processes and organisations and also narrowed its focus to a smaller number of countries. IBP also works not only on allocation, but on budget execution and impact, which requires working at sub-national level, with mass base community organizations and social movements through long-term relationships, providing a package of services. For example Brazil’s BNDES development bank has a budget larger than the whole of the World Bank which is outside the national government’s budget.

The IBP has realised how important evidence is and how much harder it would have to work in order to persuade the sceptics. It has initiated a five-year learning programme to develop a theory of change for CSOs to use with associated indicators to measure. This is linked to an external evaluation approach with local external impact evaluators. It is hoped that this approach will help to provide insights regarding the political economy underlying any changes

Access to budget information is the first step towards a more transparent and accountable budget process. It is important to emphasise the role that transparency plays in improving people’s lives: it leads to more credible policies and more effective and efficient implementation while non-transparency creates the opposite effect. The IBP has therefore focused increasingly on access to budget information and has developed the Open Budget Survey as an independent non partisan survey, conducted in 2006 and 2008. Drawing upon the questions in survey, IBP has developed an Open Budget Survey report.

The Open Budget Survey report indicates that the overall state of budget transparency is deplorable. A lack of transparency is often compounded by weak formal oversight institutions, where legislatures and auditors are not only individually weak but also do not work well together. On a more positive note, budget transparency can be improved quickly and at little cost with sufficient political will. There are also some potential ‘quick wins’ out there: 51 countries already produce at least one document for donors or for internal purposes that they do not make publicly available. These could easily be published through ministry of finance web sites. The IBP calls on countries to make these available and also calls on donors and CSOs to track what is and what is not being made available. The completed Open Budget Survey country returns are available here, making both country-level data and comments from peer reviewers available to download. This can potentially provide a very concrete specific advocacy agenda for CSOs in participating countries.

As for next steps, while indices are great for comparability they do not provide lot of nuance and texture. IBO is therefore leading follow-up work to document in detail how CSOs are able to influence budget processes and budget outcomes in selected countries. Another crucial theme in IBP work is to find innovative ways of selling the point that budget transparency is very related to the quality of people’s lives. To this end they have developed a poster for schools, are thinking about petitions that could be developed and have had a South African producer write a song.


The following points were among those raised in discussion:

  • There was extensive discussion of how donors can help to promote improved transparency. It was reiterated that, as a first step, donors in low income aid dependent countries donors need to stop doing harm themselves through fragmentary and non-transparent practices. This does not necessarily mean providing budget support. In theory many different aid modalities can be put ‘on budget’ and in reality we are not going to see a dramatic shift to budget support. Adherence to principles such as compliance with recipient country budget classifications and calendars by donors can go along way to putting all aid on budget.
  • The idea of using aid conditionality to create space for CSO engagement was discussed. The panel emphasised that we should not revert back to the sort of ex ante conditionalities used in the 1970s and 1980s and suggested that budget support offers one potential route to improving avenues for CSO engagement in aid recipient countries.
  • Vertical approaches to donor funding – such as disease specific global funds – are anathema to domestic accountability in aid recipient countries. They trade off the short-term benefits to donors of tracking resources and documenting ‘attributable’ impacts against more valuable long-term benefits to aid recipients in terms of building systems and institutions. The final purpose of aid giving is to make aid institutions redundant in the long-term and vertical funds do not really support this objective.
  • The study illustrates the importance of ‘supply-side’ factors for successful CSO interventions. Since one of the six studied countries are low income, does this also suggest that the demand side – and in particular the role of an emergent middle class – is also an important driver of change? The panel recognised this and emphasised that exploring ways of unlocking or increasing demand side pressures are important (for example through popularising the importance of budget transparency). They also emphasised that Uganda represents a case of successful CSO budget work in a low income country, and pointed to forthcoming work on CSO successes in Tanzania.
  • Mark Robinson argues that the ‘publish what you fund’ dictum should be complemented by a ‘publish what you raise’ dictum in order to promote transparency regarding government revenues as well as aid flows.
  • In contexts where budget fragmentation results from a lack of political will, CSOs need to adopt a multi-pronged strategy, exerting pressure from above, from below and from the sides.


Civil society organisations (CSOs) play a key role in ensuring government transparency and accountability. With dedicated effort, they can also help to inform decision-making processes with evidence and research. This event will highlight the importance of inclusive and participatory budgeting processes by introducing a new book on the topic, Budgeting for the Poor. It will also situate the book in a broader international context with an overview of the Open Budget Survey 2008.

Budgeting for the Poor examines the increasingly important role civil society organisations play in analysing government budget policies and in advocating for more transparent and inclusive budget processes in transitional and developing countries. Drawing on case studies of six budget groups across Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, this book is the first comprehensive study of the impact and significance of civic initiatives aimed at enhancing budget transparency and the poverty focus of government expenditure priorities. Achievements include improvements in the transparency of budgetary decisions, increased budget awareness and literacy, and deeper engagement in the budget process on the part of legislators, the media and civil society organisations. The case studies in this book show how budget groups produce greater equity in budget policies and strengthen democracy by fostering accountability, enhancing transparency and deepening participation and voice.

The Open Budget Survey 2008 is a comprehensive analysis and survey that evaluates whether governments in 85 countries give the public access to budget information and opportunities to participate in the budget process at the national level. The International Budget Partnership (IBP) believe that open budgets allow the public to be the judge of whether or not their government officials are good stewards of public funds and, because they reduce opportunities for wasteful or corrupt spending, transparent and accountable budgets can increase the resources available to fight poverty.  The Survey is conducted biennially in partnership with independent civil society researchers within each country and was first released in 2006, when it included 59 countries.