Decoding open budget: Claire Schouten and  Alexandre Ciconello share their insights with Nepal Live Today

“When we pay taxes, we're contributing to the public budget, and we have the right to know how that money is being raised and how it's being spent.”

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Claire Schouten and Alexandre Ciconello are associated with the International Budget Partnership (IBP), a global partnership of budget analysts, community organizers and advocates working to advance budget systems that work for people, as Senior Program Officers. They were in Nepal recently to attend a five-day workshop on open and accountable budgeting organized by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and Freedom Forum. Nepal Live Today caught up with Claire and Alexandre to discuss transparency and accountability in Nepal’s budgeting system. Excerpts:

How is your organization working in the open budget sector?

Claire: We are working with grassroots organizations, activists, government institutions and private sector investors among others to ensure transparency and accountability and better public budgeting systems. They need to work for the public, not just a select few. We’re excited to partner with the Freedom Forum as we have for many years to ensure justice in the budget system.

Alexandre: We believe that it’s important that the voices of the most vulnerable and underrepresented population can be heard.

How would you explain open budget awareness in layman’s terms?

Claire: Well, we should have information on how governments are using our money. When we pay taxes, we’re contributing to the public budget, and we have the right to know how that money is being raised and how it’s being spent. We also have the right to share our concerns and feedback regarding how it could be spent. We need to ensure there are state bodies and important state actors who are overseeing the budget.

What would you say is the biggest obstacle in the awareness about openness and transparency of budgets?

Alexandre: It’s probably the lack of literacy on how the government works. Usually, people don’t learn about this in the school curriculum. They don’t teach basic things about citizenship or the constitution or even how the executive part of government works. Also, we don’t talk about money. People get frustrated with the conditions of their lives because of poverty or lack of public service, but they don’t know that they could and should be part of government decision-making. Some governments don’t want to be transparent because they’re defending private interests. So the key obstacle is how can we raise awareness? If people are aware and mobilized, they can change and prioritize their own needs themselves. But that’s hard to enact because governments keep this knowledge away from people.

“We need to make sure that the government budget doesn’t go to waste.”

Claire: Another obstacle is motivating those who have the information to divulge it. So part of our work is explaining why it’s in the government’s interest to be more transparent and accountable. There needs to be trust between people and the government so that, for example, they’ll be more likely to pay tax. It’s in the government’s interest to be more open because that can help widen access to credit markets or reduce their borrowing costs. So there are many reasons why a government needs to be open. We want it to be in their best interest to be more transparent and accountable so that there’s motivation to participate and use that information on the citizen’s side.

Is it the same in the context of Nepal?

Claire: I think so. As we were speaking, I was thinking about the protests around the world like the tax-related protests in Chile and the “enough is enough” campaign in Nepal which was about transparency regarding access to vaccines and other necessary supplies. So it’s definitely an important issue here as well. Right now, all of us are facing the effects of the war in Ukraine which is affecting fuel prices all around the world. This shows that we’re all interlinked.

Alexandre: In Nepal, the decentralization processes and the introduction of fiscal federalism have created an opportunity to encourage more transparency. This is a chance for institutions to become more forthcoming with their plans with budgets.

How can people participate in the allocation of their budget?

Claire: We’ve been speaking with the Deputy Auditor General on the opportunities of opening up spaces for the consultation like hotlines, radio shows, social media, TV shows, etc for collecting inputs from citizens. If there aren’t opportunities to participate in the budget process, there needs to be a monitoring option where there is collection and reporting of the feedback from citizens.

Alexandre: It’s really important to be in a group like a trade union, grassroots organization, student group etc. It can be informal groups as well. It is important to be connected with like-minded people with similar interests.  

What would you say is the biggest misconception or misunderstanding in the field of budget literacy?

Claire: People think that budgets are just a technical item that is difficult to understand. They can be complicated but they’re the most powerful political tool. I think we need more people who can act as an intermediary and take complex information and make it more accessible for the people.

Alexandre: Nowadays everything is political which has created an aversion to all that deals with politics. But people need to be involved with every decision in their community or neighborhood, and it’s the same for the country’s issues.

The world is really divided with a lot of issues popping up again and again. How can we make people understand the importance of budget transparency and fight for it?

Claire: People care about their families, livelihoods, jobs, homes etc.  So we need to focus on what people care about instead of technical or challenging issues. We need to work within public spaces to mobilize them and show how the issues they care about relate to the budget. We need to make sure that the government budget doesn’t go to waste.