13 February 2009
South Africa has been placed second only to the UK on the Open Budget Index, an international measure of public spending transparency.
The survey is directed by the International Budget Partnership, based in Washington DC, and is conducted by independent civil society organisations in the participating countries. The Institute for Democracy in SA (Idasa) is the index’s partner in South Africa.
According to Idasa, the index is a comprehensive survey of 85 countries that evaluates whether governments give the public access to sufficient, reliable budget information and opportunities to participate in the budget process and hold their governments accountable.
Access to information
Idasa economic governance programme head Russell Wildeman explained that transparency in budget decision-making meant that citizens had access to information about how much revenue was being collected and how it was allocated to different types of spending.
“Providing the public with comprehensive and timely information on the government’s budget and financial activities empowers people and allows them to judge how their government is managing public funds,” Wildeman said in Pretoria this week. “It also creates opportunities for citizens to participate in decision-making, which can strengthen oversight and improve policy choices.”
South Africa scored 87 out of a possible 100 points on the Open Budget Index, which is based on responses to a set of survey questions and assess eight key budget documents that international good practice requires all governments to publish.
Only the United Kingdom gained a higher score, with 88 points, while France also scored 87.
A low score on the Open Budget Index suggested that decisions about public spending were made behind closed doors, which excluded meaningful participation by citizens, Wildeman said, adding that governments that restricted access to budget information could be hiding unpopular, wasteful and corrupt spending.
Good financial management
Only five countries of the 85 surveyed – France, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US – make extensive information publicly available, as required by generally accepted good public financial management practices.
The International Budget Partnership described the state of budget transparency around the world as “deplorable”, with the average score for the survey being 39 out of 100 – an indication that, on average, countries surveyed provided minimal information on their central government’s budget and financial activities.
Twenty-five countries surveyed provided little or no budget information. These included Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, the Kyrgyz Republic, China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
The least transparent countries were mostly located in the Middle East and North Africa, with an average score of 24, and in sub-Saharan Africa, with an average score of 25.
“The worst performers tend to be low-income countries that often depend heavily on revenues from foreign aid or oil and gas exports, and that have weak democratic institutions or are governed by autocratic regimes,” Idasa said.