The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What are pro-poor public investments? And will more transparency deliver them?

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Introducing Oxfam America’s active citizenship work.

Omar Ortez is the Senior Policy Advisor on Active Citizenship at Oxfam America.

Farmers harvest rice in the northern region of Astuare. Oxfam supports networks and movements of farmers, especially in the north, to engage with policy-making and spending decisions at a regional and national level. Photo: Chris Young / Oxfam.
Farmers harvest rice in the northern region of Astuare. Oxfam supports networks and movements of farmers, especially in the north, to engage with policy-making and spending decisions at a regional and national level. Photo: Chris Young / Oxfam.

It is actually not that difficult to recognize effective pro-poor public investments. They happen in the rural and unequally poor northern region of Ghana when people advocate for accountable public spending so that monies are put into effective rural development initiatives such as building rural roads or irrigation systems, or improving agriculture extension services, so that small farmers can take their products to market, sustain their crops during the dry season, and improve their productivity. (See pages 9-11 of Oxfam’s CloseUp magazine for related story.)

With her successful fish farm, Kim Nay Heang is a leading entrepreneur in her village of Kampong Preh, Cambodia. This has cushioned her family against increasing food prices. Photo: Omar Ortez / Oxfam America.
With her successful fish farm, Kim Nay Heang is a leading entrepreneur in her village of Kampong Preh, Cambodia. This has cushioned her family against increasing food prices. Photo: Omar Ortez / Oxfam America.

Pro-poor public investments also happen when a woman like Kim Nay Heang (pictured right), a 57-year-old entrepreneur from Cambodia, is able to provide education for her five grandchildren. You can see investments working when her family is able to cope with spikes in food prices thanks to her household’s fishpond, a small business brought to profitability with support from these investments.

How can we make more public investments flow to effective development initiatives like these? That question is at the heart of Oxfam’s Active Citizenship work, which we are currently developing. Active citizenship is shorthand for citizens’ oversight of public finances, particularly those that flow through national budgets and expenditures.

Revenues from extractive industries could fuel pro-poor public investments. Many resource-rich countries in Africa stand to reap a public revenue windfall that will dramatically change the region’s public financing context over the next decade. For example, according to the Africa Progress Report 2013, “the 15 million barrel increase in proven oil reserves in Africa between 2010 and 2011 could increase government revenues by US$180 billion (at 2011 prices), or 15 percent of regional GDP.”

Aid is another source of pro-poor public investments. Based on estimates from aid assessment scoring, the Quality of Official Development Assistance, improving aid outcomes could unlock up to US$67 billion in more efficient and effective aid, equivalent to over half of total aid in 2010. Developing countries themselves can also mobilize domestic resources for pro-poor public investments through tax revenues or, as in Ghana recently, by issuing bonds to be traded in domestic and international markets.

A variety of global efforts such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, International Aid Transparency Initiative, Open Government Partnership, and Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency are already focusing on making public resources more transparent and accountable to citizens. However, several big questions still remain. Perhaps the biggest one is whether transparency and accountability can ultimately deliver pro-poor public investments.

There are also questions related to mapping specific leakages in a country’s public resource chain that prevent investments from flowing to the poor. Is the problem that countries are getting a bad deal in their oil-gas-mining contracts and therefore losing potential revenue? Is it an issue of power, where in the political economy of budget allocations, pro-poor sectors like education, health, or small-scale agriculture lose out to elite interests?  Are there leakages at the level of expenditure and execution, where resources bleed out to corruption or political patronage? Or is it an issue of leakages by means of poor quality of service delivery?

As our Active Citizenship work continues to progress, we at Oxfam are asking ourselves how transparency of data and information can provoke citizens to ask questions and mobilize around any of these issues. In essence, how does transparency lead to accountability?

To answer this question, Oxfam will bring together and support the thinkers and practicioners who are actively engaged in doing so—activists and community leaders furthering the accountability of public investments on the ground and champions of public financial management reforms within government who are trying to meet these demands. Oxfam is on the lookout for promising local, national, and global initiatives that are moving active citizenship forward. We are eager to add our own voice to these initiatives and to help strengthen the global civil society movement for greater accountability of public finances.

Feel free to share any people or efforts that you know in the comments section, and stay tuned!

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