Politics of Poverty

Putting money where the citizens are: Learning from Oxfam’s global budget advocacy

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Members of the District Monitoring Committee, trained by Oxfam partners on budget monitoring, work together at the District Assembly Hall in Tarkwa, Western Region, Ghana. (Photo: Anna Fawcus / Oxfam)

An Oxfam learning review provides lessons for effective citizen advocacy on public resources.

Rehema Namukose is a former Policy and Campaigns Research and Evaluation Assistant at Oxfam America.

How can advocates best support citizens to raise their voices and claim their rights? One key way Oxfam supports people to do this is through citizen-led budget monitoring and advocacy. This work is core to Oxfam’s global-to-local influencing efforts around fiscal justice. It aims to tackle inequality and reduce poverty through increased spending on public services (e.g. health, smallholder agriculture, education) by influencing donor countries’ foreign aid budgets and developing countries’ national budgets. Given the centrality of this work to Oxfam’s global efforts, we recently undertook a learning review to look at the most important elements to successful budget monitoring and advocacy.

The world is seeing a global decline in citizen trust in government, increasing inequality, and shrinking civic space, and the report demonstrates how Oxfam efforts have adapted similar tools and approaches in eight diverse contexts – including Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, and the Netherlands – to address fiscal governance while navigating these global challenges. Overall, they emphasize efforts that foster more participatory, inclusive, and transparent processes led by citizens while strategically working to influence budget policies and increase budget accountability. Highlighted below are some two key factors of success that rose from our analysis.

Facilitate robust citizen engagement

With citizen engagement – an approach that takes different forms in different contexts – Oxfam and partners have leveraged citizen power by educating and engaging citizens to increase their understanding of the budget and public policies, and in some cases, to collectively discuss and develop policy and budget asks for their government. This approach has allowed different stakeholders to come together to voice their interests directly with decision-makers. The process has amplified the voices and concerns of citizens, promoted the increased accountability of governments, and helped citizens better understand power dynamics at work in their communities. It has let people exercise their rights and hold their leaders to account– and has ultimately furthered Oxfam’s vision of achieving fiscal justice.

In Burkina Faso, for example, Oxfam and its local partners convened women leaders for a dialogue that led to the creation of a rural women farmer’s manifesto with policy asks on core issues facing women farmers. They then organized spaces for the women leaders to communicate their needs directly to the government through private meetings, public events, and the media. Discussion spaces like these have been used to bring together women from rural areas, advocates, and policy makers, to address ongoing challenges of power, gender, and the historical exclusion of women from such dialogues. While Oxfam and its partners have found such discussion and advocacy spaces very useful, in order to continue monitoring and holding policymakers accountable to their commitments, such opportunities must be continually created.  Some Oxfam teams in places like Nigeria have or are in the process of developing online platforms to track and assess political party and government efforts to engage citizens and implement key commitments, in part to address this challenge.

Take advantage of political moments

In addition, using political opportunities and moments within and outside of the budget process has been an effective way to engage citizens and push leaders to deliver on their promises. When using such an approach, advocates should have in-depth knowledge of national budget processes and the political context in order to effectively communicate the process to others and to identify key opportunities for engagement with policymakers.   In Burkina Faso and Ghana, teams engaged the media and created spaces for smallholder farmers and others to voice their concerns and requests directly to political candidates at public events. In Nigeria, Farmers’ Manifestos were developed to engage political parties and candidates seeking elective positions on the specific issues facing farmers and the agriculture sector. Moreover, multiple countries including the Netherlands, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania have also used national and/or local elections as key influencing moments to raise awareness on their issues and influence political parties or candidates to make commitments on given budget and policy asks. These efforts appear to be most effective when there is a significant public engagement element, such as media, social media, online.

While political moments often present windows of opportunity, in some cases political shifts posed challenges to efforts to influence the budget. Such shifts included changes in the political parties in power or changes in the broader political environment that made political leaders less supportive or sympathetic to citizens’ issues. For example, budget advocacy work being done in Brazil has taken much longer than expected due in large part to the recent political changes which have led government officials to focus on other issues.

The report demonstrates that successful citizen engagement and use of political opportunities hinge upon building an informed citizenry that appreciates the budget process, how it works, why their advocacy on the topics matter, and understands the power dynamics at play. Additionally, it illustrates the important role advocates have in creating space for citizens to identify and communicate their demands with policy makers at key influencing moments.

We plan to use this report to reflect on the best ways to leverage citizen power to advance our efforts in fostering more equitable governance. Given the often challenging political environments many advocates work in, civil society organizations and other development actors could adopt these social accountability methods to scale up and push for more and better government investment in the social development issues their organizations address.

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