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May 08, 2020

How Civil Society Can Make COVID-19 Responses More Transparent

Covid
Posted by Claude Wendling and Juan Pablo Guerrero[1]

In a recent note, the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department stressed the importance of fiscal transparency, public accountability and institutional legitimacy in the fiscal response to COVID-19. This blogpost drawing on the experience of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) explores the role of civil society organizations (CSOs).

In a normal environment, of course, CSOs already play an important role in scrutinizing public policies. In accordance with GIFT Principles, public participation is an essential element of open government and of a fiscal accountability ecosystem. There is strong evidence that public participation in fiscal policies can strengthen and improve fiscal performance and outcomes.

This is even more so in the COVID-19 context. The speed and magnitude of the crisis and with one-third of the global population under lockdown mean that we are entering largely uncharted territory. This makes a vibrant and digitally-enabled civil society a crucial asset for disseminating vital information and ensuring public accountability. The benefits of public participation, often channelled through CSOs, can accrue throughout the “cycle” of the COVID-19 policy response.

Design

Several examples attest to the positive role of CSOs in helping shape the policy response and making sure that it adequately addresses the needs of specific, often fragile constituencies.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Resolution Foundation examined the economic and fiscal implications of three different scenarios based on the expected duration of social distancing measures. It also discussed how the government could mitigate and manage possible tensions between their health, economic, and fiscal policy objectives. In Colombia, DeJusticia is working with rural subsistence organizations in formulating proposals to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and design support actions on health, water, education, women and security. In the United States, numerous think tanks, academic institutions, foundations and expert organizations have produced analysis and proposals to address the crisis. For example, the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities commented on the latest Federal Government COVID-19 package of April 21, commending the support provided to small businesses and hospitals but highlighting alleged failures to deliver crucial state and local fiscal relief and food assistance.

Implementation

CSOs can provide support the good implementation of COVID-19 support packages, by facilitating outreach to potential beneficiaries, helping track and monitor the implementation of measures, and providing much-needed input on possible corrective actions.

In India, for example, the Center for Budget and Governance Accountability published an analysis of the impact of federal subsidies on subsistence farming and proposed corrective actions to ensure food security in spite of the disruptive impact of the crisis. In Nigeria, iFollowTheMoney will provide online tools for citizens to monitor the implementation of the governmental COVID-19 response, and hope to build momentum for a transparent and inclusive approach, whereby the use of all crisis-related funds and programs would be made public. In South Africa, the International Budget Partnership is providing data to residents of informal settlements in the major metropolitan centers so they can provide real-time feedback about government services during the pandemic, such as the disinfection of public facilities. Such initiatives allow government officials to understand community needs and the quality of services and help communities hold government accountable.

CSOs can also help ensure transparency and accountability in public procurement, an area especially vulnerable to fraud and corruption. In Latin America, Transparency International has convened a taskforce from 13 countries to identify risks in emergency public procurement in response to COVID-19 – opacity, hidden contracts, overpricing, collusion, and lack of competition – and measures to mitigate them. The coalition has appealed to the private sector to avoid practices that would negatively affect the supply of goods and services necessary to face the health emergency. This is supplemented by action at the national level, such as in Chile. Fundación Observatorio Fiscal has analysed controversial procurement decisions taken in response to the pandemic with respect of leasing space for a health emergency center and the acquisition of hospital equipment.

Oversight

Past experience from other crises shows that CSOs can usefully supplement oversight mechanisms such as a country’s external audit authority and the legislature by providing a “grass-roots vision” of how the support package has actually been implemented. The role of CSOs can be facilitated if external auditors take a proactive approach, for example by using mobile tech to provide information to citizens and setting up additional hotlines for receiving tips from the public and for sharing information and photos that support complaints. Such welcome developments were observed in the pre-COVID-19 period in Georgia, where the so-called “budget monitor” allows citizens to request online the State Audit Office’s intervention in cases of possible misuse of budgetary resources or abuses in public service delivery.

Going forward, the GIFT network has called upon CSOs and ministries of finance to develop a practical guide on improving the transparency and accountability of COVID-related spending programs and tax measures. The guide will include a consolidated list of data needed to track emergency spending, stimulus plans and revenue sources, the beneficiaries of these measures, and their impact on the economy and social development. Here is an opportunity to create new transparency and accountability tools that will yield benefits way beyond the lifetime of the current crisis.

This article is part of a series related to the Coronavirus Crisis. All of our articles covering the topic can be found on our PFM Blog Coronavirus Articles page.

 

[1] Claude Wendling is with the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, Juan Pablo Guerrero with the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency in Washington DC.

Note: The posts on the IMF PFM Blog should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the IMF or IMF policy.

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