By Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT
The national budget is the second most important Government Policy document of any nation, second only to the Constitution. According to the Open Budget Survey 2019, The Gambia’s Public Participation in the Budget Process is insufficient with a low score of 9 out of 100. This ranks the Gambia below Ghana and above Liberia. This article looks at the efforts of a Civil Society Organisation to increase public participation in the budget process.
On the Open Budget Survey website, it describes the organisation as “the world’s only independent, comparative and fact-based research instrument that uses internationally accepted criteria to assess public access to central government budget information; formal opportunities for the public to participate in the national budget process; and the role of budget oversight institutions such as the legislature and auditor in the budget process”.
The national budget does not only include estimates of government expenditure it also includes estimates of government revenue from foreign sources, non-taxes and taxes paid by the public such as employee tax, value-added tax, Council rates (lempo) etc.
To streamline the budget-making process elected National Assembly members are tasked with amending and approving the budget on behalf of their constituents. This requires budget consultation meetings between Parliamentarians and their electorates.
Gambia Participates (GP) is a pro fiscal transparency Civil Society Organisation that organises meetings between National Assembly members and their electorates specifically on the budget. In an exclusive interview with GP Executive Director, Mr Marr Nyang he says that their “goal is to ensure there is Participatory Budgeting in which citizens can mainstream their needs in the budget”.
“We can’t continue cooking for people food they don’t need” Marr Nyang
Speaking on a radio program on Participatory Budget, Marr Nyang highlighted that “the budget should not be approved without considering the demands of the public. If you hear the name National Assembly that’s the Peoples House (Bantaba). It’s not a place where the National Assembly members represent themselves alone. This is where the people can tell their elected representatives where they prefer to spend more on”.
“However, when you look at the budget a lot of the expenditure goes on salaries, fuel, travel and operational costs. Only a small portion goes towards development expenditure” he said.
Gambia Participates Budget Consultation Meetings
Speaking on the genesis of the initiative, Mr Nyang says they have engaged “more than 200 communities from different constituencies” since 2018. Even though approximately “75-80% of Parliamentarians in rural Gambia have been engaged” they have encountered “some challenges getting a handful of National Assembly members (NAMs) to attend” nonetheless a “significant number of [NAMs] do show up,” said Mr Nyang.
On the type of people attending their meetings, Mr Nyang says they include the “young, middle age and old” who leave their event more informed about the “national budget” through their engagement.
The CSO advocate says they always get “stunning reactions” from participants after taking “them through the source of government revenues, formulation of the budget, execution and reporting and most importantly breakdown the billions to the language they understand”.
More importantly “participants capitalize on the platform to mainstream their needs to their elected NAM at the same time holding them accountable,” he said.
A GP post on social media highlights one of the reactions from a participant named Alagie who says that “transparency alone is not enough! Participatory Budgeting is the right way to institutionalize public participation in making budget decisions”.
Another post showing participants at the event was captioned with the message asserting that “Participatory Budgeting empowers people to decide together how to spend public money”.
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On September 9th the President will deliver his State of the Nation Address at the National Assembly. According to the National Assembly Agenda for the “Third Ordinary Session for 2021”, the Finance Minister will deliver an “Oral Statement on the Implementation and Monitoring of the Annual Budget” on 27th September 2021.
It is anticipated that the Draft Budget will be introduced in Parliament in October 2021.
Once the Draft Budget has been tabled by the Finance Minister, the Constitution allows NAMs a maximum of 14 days to consider and pass the Budget. What normally happens is that the Plenary (which is Parliament’s main body) will refer the Draft Budget to the National Assembly’s Finance and Public Accounts Committee (established to investigate and report on financial matters) which will review the Draft Budget and report to the Plenary.
During this period NAMs have the authority to make amendments to the Budget which when passed become legally binding. Often most citizens aren’t aware of the avenues present to engage their elected Parliamentarians on the Budget. However, NAMs working with Organisations like GP can marshal Gambians towards a more participatory budget process.