Budget Accountability Must Be Strengthened to Advance Human Rights in Africa

In May 2009, news broke of what has been described as one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Zambia: a number of officials within the Ministry of Health allegedly stole millions of dollars from the health sector over the course of 14 months. What makes the scandal particularly reprehensible is that every cent of Zambia's modest health budget is needed to address the needs of a country where an estimated 14 percent of the population lives with HIV or AIDS, more than one in 10 children dies before the age of five, and the average life expectancy is only 44 years.

In the aftermath of the health sector debacle, the Zambian government launched a high level investigation and the state-controlled media castigated the wrongdoers in response to criticism from the public and foreign donors, which reportedly bankroll 55 percent of Zambia's health budget. Among the immediate consequences of the scandal were disruptions of the country's health delivery system due to the freezing of foreign aid and a six-week strike by underpaid health workers who were outraged by the looting of health funds. The fallout continues. Sector funding in the 2010 approved budget decreased 3.7 percent from 2009, and official allocations to essential programs, including certain HIV and AIDS treatment programs, children's clinics, and reproductive health clinics, were cut.

The abuse of power for private gain is not unique to Africa. Corrupt practices occur in rich and poor counties alike, although corruption thrives in countries where government institutions are weak and remuneration for public servants is low. Unfortunately, this toxic mix is present in many African countries and is exacerbated by foreign businesses that pay bribes and donors that fail to adequately monitor development funds. Because of the globalized nature of corruption, it is imperative that both providers and recipients of development assistance question what can be done to prevent the commission of corrupt acts that deprive poor people of their rights to health, education, and a decent standard of living.

An important element of corruption prevention involves strengthening budget accountability by establishing mechanisms that empower individuals to become budget watchdogs. Human rights laws ratified by most African countries, including Zambia, define the contours of "accountability." Articles 19 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) enshrine the rights of each person to freely "receive and impart information" and to "take part in the conduct of public affairs." As applied to the budget process, these rights require governments to make budget allocation, expenditure and revenue information widely accessible and available in formats that can be understood by most individuals, including language minorities and people who cannot read. These rights also require governments to develop clear procedures that give individuals the opportunity to articulate their spending priorities, influence budget decisions and monitor budget implementation. Moreover, human rights law recognizes the right to an effective remedy to redress human rights violations, such as violations of the right to education caused by the central government's failure to release funds that local governments need to pay teachers and buy books.

Individuals living in impoverished countries may not have the tools to serve as budget watchdogs. In Zambia, for instance, budget information is largely inaccessible. The Ministry of Finance's yearly guide to budget allocation is voluminous, expensive and steeped in technicality. Quarterly public expenditure guides, which the Ministry promised to begin producing in 2009, have not materialized. Laws regarding the taxation of foreign businesses are summarily changed without public input. Public spending on accountability mechanisms is woefully inadequate. To illustrate, the entire judiciary was allocated less than one percent of the 2010 budget, while quasi-judicial bodies including the Anti-Corruption Commission, Human Rights Commission, and Office of the Ombudsman received about half of one percent of the budget, combined.

Despite significant challenges, budget accountability can and should be pursued as a strategy to advance human rights. Civil society can promote accountability by urging governments to produce and disseminate citizen budget guides and expenditure updates that empower local communities to assess whether or not the government is spending money in accordance with its budget policy. Donor governments can offer financial and technical assistance to build the capacity of accountability institutions -- such as courts and ombudspersons -- to redress human rights violations. Taxpayers from donor countries can urge their leaders to publicly track development assistance so that corrupt officials may be swiftly identified and prosecuted. Finally, everyone can avoid patronizing businesses that have a history of paying bribes, avoiding foreign taxes, or otherwise violating human rights. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center's online database of the human rights records of 5,100 businesses is a great place to begin company research.

Transparent management of public revenue and expenditure is needed to ensure that governments maximize their available resources to finance public welfare programs that advance human rights. From my work in Zambia, I know that individuals, including those who never received a formal education, are fully capable of identifying local budget priorities and tracking budget expenditure when empowered with information and appropriate forums to communicate with leaders. Those of us from donor countries such as the United States should support local budget accountability efforts by lobbying our government to treat budget accountability, as defined under human rights law, as a central feature of foreign assistance.