Two days with the Radiographers of Power

July 5, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Spent another couple of days with the International Budget Partnership (IBP) last week. If budgets sound boring and bean-counter IBP logoish, consider this quote from Rudolf Goldscheid: “the budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.” Follow the money, because the rest is spin. The IBP trains and supports civil society organizations (CSOs) in dozens of countries to become better radiographers of that skeleton (and takes the odd X ray itself).

The conversation was intense. IBP reminds me of Twaweza in its readiness to be open about weakness and failure, and its thirst for new ideas to improve its work. Some of the topics that surfaced:

Where is the budget transparency movement, 20 years on?

  • Much more info is now available, but is not always being used, or in a useful form. That gives a perfect excuse to recalcitrant governments – ‘why should we release more data when no-one used the last lot?!’.
  • There is isomorphic mimicry on all sides. 100+ countries have transparency rules, but few have led to lasting changes of behaviour. There is plenty of ‘Openwash’ from governments, who move the important stuff off budget and out of sight, eg via state owned enterprises. On the civil society side, more groups are chasing grants by claiming to be ‘doing transparency’, but there is ‘a lot of fakeness’ – ‘groups coming to us saying ‘we have got the funding from a donor to do this budget project, and we have to report next week, can you help us?’’ A case for some kind of certification scheme?
  • The low hanging fruit have been harvested. Now (e.g. in Indonesia and Latin America) budget advocacy is hitting the walls of vested interests – eg mining codes, tax, pension reform. Data alone is not enough (see below).
  • Very few CSOs are yet moving beyond spending to look at tax. Although IBP is working with Latin American CSOs on this, the vast majority of work on tax remains international – e.g. tax havens and illicit flows.

Data in a Downturn

North and South, IBP staff see alarming changes in the climate for their work. Growing distrust of ‘experts’ and institutions, and a post-truth, or at least post-data environment are an existential threat for an organization with a deeply rationalist theory of action based on ‘get the data out there, and people will use it to influence governments’. In some cases, new forms of activism are emerging, but they tend to be more ephemeral, atomized, uninstitutionalised (or in some cases anti-institutional).

skeletonIn such circumstances do you stick with data and evidence, working with the people, eg progressive civil servants, who still care about them (even if such allies seem to be shrinking in number)? Or do you move towards a more narrative-based form of advocacy, with more emphasis on stories, myths and emotions?

Do you get more adversarial, in response to all this? Tricky because ‘Our strongest weapon is asking nicely, and identifying the sorts of people likely to respond to being asked nicely. Where the state says ‘no’, it is much harder to know what to do – we are far stronger on an inside game.’

Possible Ways Forward

So what might an IBP theory of action for these new conditions look like? There are several months of this discussion left, but ideas that emerged last week included:

Continuity and Change: Staff get impatient, worry about the perceived lack of real world impact, are lured by the excitement of working closer to the grassroots, but for a small international NGO like IBP, continuity has a lot going for it. Its cautious, superficially apolitical tone, focussed on data and transparency, give it precious traction with economic liberals and political conservatives at a time of political downturn. Through its influential Open Budgets Survey and international advocacy, it has played a central role in what has become a much broader transparency and accountability movement. Frustration with the slow pace of change and the understandable desire to move beyond mere data, and get more transformational may reflect the new situation (or the exhaustion of the current model/end of the low hanging fruit), but be careful on what you sacrifice in the process – throwing out babies, bathwater etc.

Global v National: although national and local work are often a lot more exciting than traipsing round the international conference circuit, IBP has played a crucial role in getting budget transparency onto the international agenda. As space closes at national level, it should definitely keep going in consolidating the global commitments.

Fragile States: the aid business is heading into fragile and conflict settings, partly because that’s where most of the poor people willfragile states 1 be in 20 years’ time. I came away with the strong feeling that IBP should steer well clear. With absent or predatory governments, and a weak and under siege civil society, the chances of winning a few in messy places seem vanishingly small.

Civil Society is Bigger than Civil Society Organizations: like most INGOs, IBP has slid into conflating civil society with formal CSOs, at least in terms of its core partners. But many other actors care about transparency and accountability, and may be ready to act even in the absence of the strong CSOs on which IBP’s work is currently predicated. This may well be the moment to consciously broaden the movement to deepen links with the private sector, academia, the media, faith organizations etc etc.

Technology really matters: I’m generally a tech sceptic (over-hyped quick fix solutions that conveniently ignore power and politics). Not on this one though. The technological possibilities are advancing rapidly – IBP needs to move on from periodic big picture reports to provide realtime, easily customized, online data. Imagine the usefulness to grassroots activists of an app that allows them to immediately download their village/city budget and compare it with actual spending.  But the power and politics will still matter – one IBP staffer warned us to beware the ‘Millennial tech quick fixers with short attention spans. Their organization has 10 people with 45 projects. They think you put on your headphones, do some coding and its done.’ Love it.

But above all, stick with budgets – whatever further weirdness affects politics over the next few years, one thing is certain: budgets will remain the skeleton of the state, and X ray specialists will be essential to tell us who they are hurting or helping.