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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Citizen Participation in National Budget Processes – Symbolic or Genuine?

The COVID-19 pandemic did not only pose a health crisis in Zimbabwe but has deepened the social and economic malaise the country was already grappling with. The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to push between 71 and 100 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2020.[1] This is an addition to about 713 million people estimated by the World Data Lab as already living in extreme poverty.[2] If the projections are anything to go by, it is a fact that the global south, Zimbabwe included, is likely to constitute the larger number of people who would been thrown into extreme poverty by the end of the year. Currently, Africa accounts for a huge number of the people living in extreme poverty, with Zimbabwe alone accounting for about 6 million people (World Data Lab, 2020). International efforts towards alleviating hunger and poverty are therefore being undermined by the social and economic costs of the pandemic.

Zimbabwe just like most of the African countries was already battling to contain the deep rooted social and economic challenges amongst them high unemployment, a crumbling public health care, poor public service delivery, poverty, hunger and deprivation. COVID-19  worsened the multi-faceted crisis.

The extent of the social and economic damage posed by the virus is heavily dependent on policy interventions at national level. In this regard, the national budget remains one such important policy tool towards addressing the social and economic effects of the pandemic. This is because a national budget is more than just a financial document as it facilitates reallocation of resources, reduce income and wealth inequalities, economic stability and growth and reduction of regional disparities. For the attainment of these, any budget must be anchored on the principles of equity, inclusivity and social and economic justice.

The 2021 National Budget therefore comes at such a critical time when the hopes for social and economic redemption of the majority of Zimbabweans are pinned on the macroeconomic policy document. The importance attached to the whole budget process by the Executive, the Legislature and the general citizenry is as important as the national budget statement itself. Such importance can therefore be measured by ascertaining the extent to which the responsible authorities (Executive and the Parliament of Zimbabwe) abide by the rules and regulations governing the national budget processes in the country and the extent of citizen participation in the process.

The most important dimension of all is citizen participation which can either be symbolic thus doing it for the purposes of procedure and ticking the boxes and meaningful participation which in this case can be understood as the extent to which citizens influence the final national budget statement.  The symbolic or meaningfulness of citizen participation can be ascertained through an assessment of the budget consultations process, uptake of citizens’ views and production and release of the Budget Strategy Paper.

An assessment of the national budget consultations thus far

The national budget in Zimbabwe is produced by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development in compliance with Section 305 of the Constitution and Section 28(1) read together with Section 7(2)(a) of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). The national budget in Zimbabwe covers the period 1st January to 31st December. The PFM Act also mandates the Minister of Finance and Economic Development through the Parliament of Zimbabwe to solicit citizens’ input into the budget.  Section 28 (5) of the Public Finance Management Act provides that; The Minister may, through the appropriate portfolio committee of Parliament, seek the views of Parliament in the preparation and formulation of the national annual budget, for which purpose the appropriate portfolio committee shall conduct public hearings to elicit the opinions of as many stakeholders in the national annual budget as possible.

The Parliament of Zimbabwe has religiously conducted pre budget consultations throughout    the country soliciting citizens’ views concerning the upcoming budget. The 2021 budget consultations were done from the 12th to the 16th of October 2020 without the critical Budget Strategy Paper to guide the process.

The PFM Act advances Section 13 (2) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe which provides that citizens must be involved in developmental plans and programmes that affect them. However, the provision of the PFM Act does not only ensure citizen participation in governance processes but also ensures that the national budget responds to the needs and aspirations of the general populace. Whether citizens’ submissions are incorporated into the final budget statement or not is another issue. Pertaining the incorporation of citizens’ views in the final budget, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), conducted an Open Budget Survey in 2019 to ascertain the extent to which budget related information is accessible to citizens and the extent to which citizens participate in the budget processes both at local and national level. It is worrisome to note that one of the reasons behind citizen apathy is the fact that their views are not incorporated into the final budget. The Parliament of Zimbabwe reported that out of the 239 recommendations made towards the 2020 budget, only 115 were incorporated representing a 48% uptake.[3]

Given this background, one can be tempted to conclude that the national budget consultations in Zimbabwe presents symbolic citizen participation instead of genuine engagement.[4] Genuine and meaningful citizen engagement can only be realized when at least three quarters of the budget speaks to the needs and aspirations of the general populace whom it seeks to serve.  In addition to the failure to incorporate recommendations from citizens, concerns have also been consistently raised on the exclusionary nature of the public hearings conducted in physical spaces which are only conducted at selected few venues in the country’s ten provinces. An example can be drawn from the just ended 2021 budget consultations where in the whole Midlands Province, public consultations were only done in Gokwe, Mberengwa and Shurugwi. This is a systematic disenfranchisement of the majority of the impoverished citizens who cannot sacrifice their hard-earned income if any to cater for travel expenses to the public hearing venues. Clarion calls have since been made to the Parliament of Zimbabwe to decentralize the consultations and ensure that they are brought closer to the people for instance at Ward level. That way, effective citizen participation can be guaranteed. This will not only ensure public accountability but will also go a long way in restoring public trust in the entire national budget process.

Concerns around the Budget Strategy Paper

The Budget Strategy Paper remains an important document not only in providing a roadmap for the national budget but in informing submissions made by the general populace and other key stakeholders including the business community. The production and release of the Budget Strategy Paper by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development is guided by Statutory Instrument (SI) 135 of 2019 on Public Finance Management (General) Regulations. Section 8 (1) of the SI 135 of 2019 provides that; The Budget Strategy Paper shall contain a medium-term macroeconomic forecast setting out actual, estimated and projected values of the following economic variables for no less than the previous two years, the current year and the next three years. The variables referred to include gross domestic product and its components; inflation; employment and unemployment; exchange rates with major trading partners; interest rates; money supply; mineral prices, outputs, and sales; agricultural prices, outputs and sales; assumptions underpinning the forecasts; a statement of the consistency or differences to forecasts from other sources; and information on the longer-term macroeconomic forecasts.

Given its strategic importance in the national budget making process, the Budget Strategy Paper must be accorded the value it deserves. This means timely release of the Paper to inform budget consultations and stakeholder inputs. In the case of the 2021 budget processes, the Budget Strategy Paper was only released on the last day of the budget consultations, whether this was deliberate or not, it’s a question for another day. This is despite the provision in the Public Finance Management General Regulations stipulating that the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development must provide the Budget Strategy Paper to Cabinet not later than 30 June and to the Parliament not later than the 31st of July. Making delays in releasing the BSP is a disservice to the stakeholders, more importantly citizens who must make input from an informed position.  One can therefore argue that the 2021 Budget Strategy Paper did not serve the purpose it meant to and it was only availed for procedure and ticking the box.

The question of timing is however not the only concern regarding the BSP. The document is too technical for an ordinary citizen. If the government is earnest in facilitating genuine citizen engagement, then effective communication must be at the center of any policy undertaking. Citizen participation in economic governance issues in particular comes at three levels starting with information provision where the government produces and delivers relevant information to facilitate public engagement. Information provision is followed by consultations where citizens provide input and feedback on the issue at hand in this case the 2021 national budget. The final level is that of citizen participation where the public provide input and shape the policy direction. Taking it into the context of the national budget process in Zimbabwe, the information provision level encompasses a timely dissemination of the Budget Strategy Paper in preparation of the consultations where citizens must make submissions on the budget informed by the BSP. Through the consultations, citizens shape the 2021 National Budget through airing their views and aspirations on the economy.

Efforts must therefore be made towards ensuring that the BSP makes sense to an ordinary citizen whose social and economic rights can only be realized through the formulation and implementation of a people centered budget. The BSP must not be a preserve for technocrats but also for an ordinary citizen. However, for as long as it remains a technical and elitist document, it will be extremely difficult for citizens to meaningfully engage with it. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development must therefore make deliberate efforts to simplify the document to the level of a layman’s understanding.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The national budget is an important macroeconomic policy significant enough to address the social and economic aspirations of citizens. The responsiveness of the budget however largely rests on whether there is symbolic or genuine citizen participation from the formulation stage up to the evaluation stage. However, the whole national budget process must be premised on the principles of equity, inclusivity and social and economic justice. It is against this background that the following recommendations are made;

  1. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development must ensure timely release of the Budget Strategy Paper. The document must be released way before the budget consultations commence to give stakeholders ample time to interact with the document and make informed submissions.
  2. Deliberate efforts must also be made towards the simplification of the Budget Strategy Paper to the understanding of an ordinary citizen. This can be realized through [producing a Citizen Version of the Budget Strategy Paper. This way citizens can be meaningfully engaged.
  3. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development must work closely with the Parliament of Zimbabwe and increase the uptake of citizens’ views into the final national budget statement. This will go a long way in restoring public trust in the entire national budget process and the government in general.
  4. The Government of Zimbabwe must speed up the operationalization of the Decentralization and Devolution Policy so that pre budget consultations are decentralized preferably to the Ward level for the reach of many.
  5. The Parliament of Zimbabwe is commended for translating public hearing notices into indigenous languages and devising as new ways of soliciting citizens’ views for instance through radio. However, the government must ensure that the Parliament of Zimbabwe is well resourced to undertake public hearings in as many places as possible. Resourcing Parliament will also go a long way in ensuring that the institution innovates and embraces information communication technology to harvest citizens’ input towards the budget.

[1] https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/updated-estimates-impact-covid-19-global-poverty

[2] https://worldpoverty.io/

[3] https://www.parlzim.gov.zw/component/k2/download/2963_e305df3af9e0ba7d3ddde5c440c1530a

[4] http://zimcodd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Zimbabwe-Open-Budget-Survey.pdf

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