Rapid assessment of coronavirus funds worldwide finds widespread accountability lapses, calls for stronger oversight in ongoing response

NL Today

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Kathmandu: The International Budget Partnership today released a global scorecard of accountability that found widespread weaknesses in transparency and oversight of COVID assistance, estimated to have reached14 trillion USD by the end of 2020.

It is crucial that governments be transparent and accountable as these massive expenditures are having short and long-term consequences for their public finances and most importantly, their people.

The rapid assessment of 120 countries including Nepal across 26 indicators of transparency, oversight and public participation in the management of Coronavirus assistance found that more than two thirds of governments fell short of managing their emergency packages in an accountable manner; almost two-thirds failed to follow transparent procurement procedures, almost half of the countries bypassed legislatures to introduce relief packages and only about a quarter of national auditors published expedited audit reports.

As per the assessment report launched virtually, Nepal is found to have only provided limited levels of accountability in the introduction and implementation of their early fiscal policy responses. The budget speech for the fiscal year 2020/21 introduced by the Ministry of Finance in 2020 was assessed as an emergency fiscal policy package of Nepal, reads a press release issued by Freedom Forum, a research partner of International Budget Partnership.

According to the findings, Nepal falls on the category of ‘limited’ in transparency which was assessed on the indicators such as introduction of the fiscal package (macroeconomic and aggregate budget information, policy measures, recipients and performance, sources of financing and extra budgetary funds, and implementation of the package (reporting on execution, extra budgetary funds and procurement). Likewise, the country falls in the category of ‘some’ in oversight which was assessed based on the role of legislatures and role of national audit office. Nepal is in the category of ‘minimum’ in participation which was assessed based on the criteria of public participation.

According to the report, governments are falling short in all the areas of reporting on implementation, procurement transparency and timely audits. First and foremost, the severe lack of public reporting on implementation of policy initiatives is hampering efforts to hold governments accountable for the effectiveness of their crisis response. The governments published little or no information on actual vs. planned spending, financing and performance, while only a handful ensured access to adequate levels of reporting. Transparency was especially weak when it came to reporting on the impact of policies on different categories of beneficiaries.

Most countries, almost two thirds of those surveyed including Nepal, published very limited information on the introduction and use of simplified pandemic-related procurement procedures, making it difficult to assess if governments were getting value for money in purchases of medical equipment or other goods and services.

In only about a quarter of the countries assessed were government auditors able to produce and publish audit reports before the end of 2020, in time to  allow for an independent check on COVID-19 spending as it happened. Another important area of accountability calls for keeping apprised of the differing needs of vulnerable groups in the population and taking targeted action accordingly.

In regard to the role of legislatures, Nepal’s parliament was found to have provided adequate role in the endorsement of the fiscal policy package in the name of enacted budget. However, the parliament did not regularly receive and debate reports on the implementation of COVID-19 response policies, and even fewer received and debated related audit reports.

Citizen participation in the formulation and execution of COVID-19 policy responses is virtually non-existent, excluding the public from having a voice in decisions on priority-setting during the pandemic, and depriving governments of contributions which could greatly improve the effectiveness of their actions. As assessed Nepal had provided minimal public participation opportunities in course of seeking their inputs in while putting in place fiscal policy response to the pandemic.

 “When the crisis broke, we urged governments to be transparent and accountable because we knew from our Open Budget Survey there were weaknesses in accountability systems globally,” said Vivek Ramkumar, senior policy director of the International Budget Partnership. “Unfortunately, this scorecard shows too many governments are falling short, to the detriment of the publics they serve. It doesn’t have to be this way—we encourage countries to incorporate the good practices our report highlights in ongoing relief efforts and international donors to support country-led efforts to strengthen accountability norms.”

Despite overall bleak trends globally, the report highlights promising examples from countries that show a different way to respond is possible even with limited resources. Paraguay has a one-stop-shop site that publishes all pandemic-related procurement. 22 countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Canada and Togo recognized the disproportionate impacts on women and published information on policies targeting women. Sierra Leone’s national auditor used real-time audits building on the Ebola crisis experience. Citizen-led efforts like South Africa’s Asivikelane, which use scorecards to track water and sanitation services, prove valuable to authorities and should be replicated by governments.

“This crisis is far from over. We must keep mobilizing resources for the pandemic response, including ensuring everyone has equitable access to vaccines,” said Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of CARE International. “If we are serious about equity and justice, we must be serious about accountability. This is about ensuring assistance reaches those who need it most.”

Freedom Forum, a CSO working on budget and audit accountability in Nepal conducted the Covid Module of Open Budget Survey.