“Show me the money”

Why transparent national budgetary processes are critical for financing the Sustainable Development Goals.

When Tom Cruise is first asked to recite the family motto of the struggling sports star in the film Jerry Maguire he struggles to say it with zeal. And while officials, activists, and leaders who converged in New York last week for the first UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) may also not have jumped up and down with the same energy of Cuba Gooding Jr’s character, a key theme of their deliberations was in fact money.

For it continues to become more and more apparent that to ensure the success of  the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  financing is essential. While it’s critical for LDCs that ODA rose to US$ 135 billion, it’s also clear that we indeed need to move from “billions to trillions”, with the bulk of future SDG financing to come from enhanced domestic resource mobilisation as highlighted a year ago in Addis.

That said, are countries “fit” for this new reality? If not, what can be done to help facilitate the change needed?  From a field perspective, and as outlined in my short contribution to the new publication Financing the United Nations Development System – Current Trends and New Directions, I think there are a number of  concrete things that could be done.

Better understanding and greater transparency

First, from a domestic policy perspective, actions required include improving tax collection, halting illicit financial flows, eliminating tax havens, and combating corruption in order to invest more in sustainable development. Governments will also need to better understand the myriad of potential sources of finance, innovative mechanisms and potential partnerships to help them achieve their nationally-driven SDG priorities.

Second, in order to truly “leave no one behind”, in my view much greater transparency will have to become a sine qua non of future SDG financing. If the SDGs are based on the assumption that change will be driven by shared data, evidence and actionable targets, then it will only succeed if the means of implementation are also fully transparent.  In that context, the SDGs demand a major change in the transparency of budgets and national budgetary processes.

That said, to this point governments–both North and South–have not been forthcoming in making budgetary information fully accessible. The International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2015 recently noted that 72 out of 102 countries reviewed failed to provide adequate information on their national budgets and that few budgets are developed in a participatory manner. So what’s to be done?

Fostering inclusive and participatory budgetary processes

While most countries provide few opportunities for the public to participate in budget processes, there are a few innovative models to build on.

In the Philippines, the government collects broad-based feedback directly from citizens and consults with civil society organisations on budget preparations. It has also institutionalised civil society’s engagement in the budgeting and monitoring process through Budget Partnership Agreements. In South Korea, a mechanism was established whereby policy experts and civil society members conduct an assessment identifying wasteful spending and via a public website citizens can report budget misappropriations. Other innovative examples in South Africa and Porto Alegre, Brazil, are highlighted in the report.

It is also important that development partners walk the talk – both in terms of their commitment to aid transparency and in opening up any remaining domestic budget “black boxes” at home. While efforts to improve the transparency of ODA have been underway since 2005, only ten traditional ODA providers have met their commitment to aid transparency. That said, initiatives such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative have been supporting the global drive for publication of more timely and forward-looking information, with over 400 organisations now publishing data on their development activities, including 13 UN entities in the UNDG – many ranking in top positions.

There will also be an increasing need to find mechanisms to help open up the budget process. When I served as UN Resident Coordinator in Tanzania (2002-2006), I remember how important Tanzania’s Public Expenditure Review process was and the important role the UN Country Team played in facilitating a more open, inclusive and participatory budgetary process.

Facilitation role of the UN 

The UN could again help facilitate more inclusive, society-wide dialogues on SDG financing in line with its important normative function around budget transparency, participation and accountability and its commitment to “leaving no one behind”.

Specifically, the UN can offer a number of important policy tools for more transparent SDG financing from gender-responsive budgeting to ensure that fiscal policies are aligned with gender equality objectives (led by UN Women) to the use of social audits and participatory approaches for monitoring access to, and satisfaction with, basic social services and social protection.

Another critical tool is analytical work to better analyse the impact of national budget flows on specific sectors like health and education, as is done by UNICEF in many countries. Many UN entities have made important contributions to the development of national capacities for the generation and collection of reliable budget data. UNDP, among others, is also engaged in broader support to strengthening transparency and accountability of public institutions, e-governance, and strengthening networks of civil society organisations.

Ultimately effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda will depend in no small part on “show (ing) me the money” — that is whether national financing for the SDGs is mobilised, planned and spent in an effective, efficient and, most critically, transparent manner.

John Hendra By John Hendra

John Hendra recently established his own consulting practice after retiring from a 32-year United Nations career. His most recent position was as UN Assistant Secretary-General (ASG), helping the UN become more ‘fit for purpose’ in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Prior to this, he served as UN ASG and Deputy Executive Director at UN Women, and as UN Resident Coordinator and UN Development Programme Resident Representative in Viet Nam, Tanzania and Latvia. In his consulting capacity he serves as a part-time Senior Advisor to the Joint SDG Fund, and is also an Associate Researcher with the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut fur Entwicklungspolitik, DIE).