PLACE DU PETIT-SACONNEX
1211 GENEVA 19, SWITZERLAND
"PARLIAMENT AND THE BUDGETARY PROCESS, INCLUDING FROM A GENDER PERSPECTIVE"
Bamako (Mali), 1-3 November 2001
The national budget is crucial to the implementation of all public projects. It marries that which is desirable, i.e., the ambitions of an effective policy and that which is sustainable, notably financial means. Consequently, this combination enables the Executive to strike a balance between economics and finances in its policy. The national budget is the principal instrument for modernising public management. Through it, policies which promote equality between men and women can be identified. Finally, it is an essential tool for combating poverty.
However, it should be noted that a certain number of budget items (staffing expenses, public assistance, etc.) cannot be easily compressed and therefore incur necessary expenses. The leeway for consolidating existing policies or promoting new ones is therefore often restricted. Yet as narrow as it may be, this leeway justifies, ipso facto, an intense parliamentary debate.
The budgetary procedure is governed by public law which imposes a certain number of rules on the Executive. These rules are intended to guarantee the optimal and transparent use of public funds.
It is within this context of budgetary procedure, therefore, that the Executive and Parliament fully exercise their powers while remaining within the purview of their institutional competence and respecting the principle of the separation of powers.
From a perspective of good governance which entails combating poverty and incorporating the gender dimension, one of the State's reform objectives should be to overhaul public management and by so doing, move away from a logic of means and towards a logic of results. Indeed, strengthening the role and powers of Parliament, notably by enhancing information and reinforcing parliamentary oversight, are necessary conditions for a vibrant and responsible democracy.
Moreover, implementing national budget policy can be improved through comparison and co-ordination of experiences within the region. In this respect, developing a common accounting framework, exchanging good practices, multilateral oversight and the establishment of benchmarks can foster good governance.
The national budget is characterised by the following elements:
The respective roles of the Executive and Parliament
The Executive draws up the budget as a reflection of its priorities.
Within the framework of its economic, financial, social and cultural programme, the Executive identifies a number of activities, bearing in mind the prevailing environment and international constraints and adapting its plans to the performance of the local economy. It ensures that the budget contributes through cyclical measures (measures that are adapted to economic conditions) to the economic development of the country.
The Executive respects the institutional competence of Parliament by submitting to it an accurate and complete document which clearly outlines the main thrusts of the budget, new measures compared with the previous budget and the budget's adaptation to the macro-economic context.
To that end, budget documents submitted to Parliament should contain an accurate description of the economic context and notably, GDP growth estimates, inflation projections and a description of proposed cyclical measures as well as a detailed report on execution of the budget for the current year.
The general policy statement attached to the budget should indicate, both in terms of revenue and expenditure, exactly how the budget can assist in effectively combating poverty, give some indication of any progress made and identify new policies for promoting gender equality.
The budget should be submitted with ample time to allow Parliament to effectively examine the document and propose possible amendments prior to voting in the budget bill.
Each minister should also attach a mission statement to the relevant part of the budget describing the ministry's overall policy for the twelve months ahead, the main thrust of its policy and the resources allocated to it.
Why should parliament take an active part in the budget?
The budget presents an occasion for Parliament to completely fulfil the mission entrusted to it by the democratic system.
In voicing their constituents' concerns, parliamentarians can formulate a number of suggestions for the various ministries prior to submission of the budget. MPs should consult with their constituents in the first instance and subsequently with civil society, particularly NGOs and other grassroots associations. As local or provincial elected officials, they can convey the results of such initiatives as the need arises.
Reading and adoption of the budget
The task of examining the budget should be carried out mainly within the Finance Committee. This Committee should be allowed to confer with specialised committees which may be called on to give their view, within their particular area of competence, of the various sections of the budget following an audience with relevant ministers. In this regard, the experience of Burkina Faso is worthy of mention. It established sub-committees within its Finance Committee with responsibility for a number of specific budgets following meetings and discussions with relevant ministers.
The Finance Committee can thereby draw on the highlights of those discussions and proceed with an analysis and subsequent passing of the budget in plenary. It can write up a report which reflects Parliament's evaluation of the national budget and the Executive's proposed fiscal measures. The report should also include proposed amendments. Special reports outlining the financial resources allocated to each ministry should be drawn up and presented during the debate by specially appointed rapporteurs.
Within the context of the budget debate, lawmakers should verify revenue and expenditure by monitoring execution of the budget. The Executive should, in addition to the debate, provide a report on the execution of the annual budget, outlining the main macro-economic hypotheses on the basis of which the draft Finance Act was drawn up for the year ahead. A multi-year outlook of the budget deficit and the debt burden should be presented to legislators.
On initial examination of the Finance Act, Parliament should be allotted sufficient time to access all relevant documents as well as complete and accurate information on macro-economic data and their correlation with budget projections. On this point, all information presented to Parliament should be complete and a clearly-worded and an explicit summary of the policies espoused by the budget, including the strategy for combating poverty and the gender dimension should be made available.
The general policy statement is a useful document as it provides a summary of the Executive's sector-specific policies. It is the Executive's work tool for the years ahead. It also facilitates Parliament's task of overseeing the commitments made by the Executive.
During the budget debate, Parliament assesses the efficiency of public policy. This evaluation may take the form of studies conducted by select committees, the Audit Office or other agencies. These studies must be published.
Oversight and follow-up of the budget
For Parliament, the budget is not an event but rather a process which goes on throughout the fiscal year. With this in mind, Parliament should receive regular reports on execution of the budget and the state of income and expenditure as compared with the initial budget.
Through its questions, hearings and commissions of enquiry, Parliament can regularly hold the Executive to scrutiny about execution of the budget. It may also request in-depth enquiries from other bodies which exercise oversight of the Executive such as the Audit Office (see below).
In the event that there is a change in the majority during the course of the budget year or in the event of significant exceptional circumstances such as a recession or natural disaster, it falls to Parliament to adjust the budget. The Executive should seek the opinion of the Finance committee on cancellations and new appropriations. The amended Financial Act should be submitted to Parliament so that its modifications can be regularised during the year governed by the initial Financial Act.
Budget Review Act
At the end of the budget year and without delay, Parliament must be able to voice its opinion on the Budget Review Act on the basis of a transparent, comprehensible and accurate document which outlines the budget's performance and details the public funds involved for the year in question. This document must indicate any discrepancies between the budget that was passed and its performance as well as the cause of such discrepancies.
The passage of this Act allows Parliament to grant a discharge on Executive action. The examination of the Act provides a crucial opportunity for evaluating the Executive's public policy.
In this regard, the sooner the Budget Review Act is passed the better Parliament and the Executive can redesign subsequent budgets on the basis of the appraisal of the budget performance. The Audit Office, therefore, should have at its disposal the human and other resources necessary for reporting on the Budget Review Act without delay.
Such scrutiny within a reasonable deadline is also a guarantee of speedy sanction in case of irregularities, including corruption-related misappropriations.
Parliamentary oversight can be ensured through the following internal mechanisms:
Regardless of whether it falls under the Executive, the Legislature or the Judiciary, it is imperative for the Audit Office to be completely independent and truly autonomous. It should also dispose of adequate resources to accomplish its mission.
Its function is three-fold:
What does Parliament need to carry out its lawmaking function?
Parliament authorises tax collection and votes appropriations and must therefore have at its disposal the human and other resources necessary for effective oversight of Executive action.
Parliament must have the financial resources needed to carry out its missions.
The financial autonomy of Parliament must be upheld in theory and in practice. In accordance with the fundamental principle of the separation of powers, the internal budget of the Parliament should be drawn up under the sole responsibility of the House and subsequently presented to the Executive to be incorporated into the national budget. The Executive is not to judge the appropriateness of the resources requested by Parliament to carry out its functions. It's allocation must be paid in full by the Executive at the beginning of the budget year. Parliamentary oversight of the execution of the budget should be entrusted to a committee of MPs in which the opposition is well represented.
This financial autonomy should, above all, allow Parliament and MPs to work with collaborators. Given the highly technical nature of finance acts and the complex nature of economic and financial documents, expertise in these areas is required. Two solutions are possible, namely:
Recruitment of such officials may take the form of designating officials from the Executive to serve Parliament or by a competitive selection process.
Apart from these public collaborators, MPs can also have assistants. Political parties can also recruit a group of experts in the interest of their members.
Ongoing training of these various collaborators is indispensable. The focus of such training should be on mastering the budgetary process. One part of the training exercise should be dedicated to data analysis from the gender perspective. Furthermore, MPs should also receive sufficient training in economic and financial matters in order to follow the budgetary process, including from the gender perspective.
Access to information of an economic, financial and budgetary nature should be enhanced in traditional and electronic forms (data bases, Internet). Emphasis should be placed on information which takes into consideration gender inequality and allows for the formulation of more equitable policy. The resources needed for exploiting and processing such data should be developed, particularly within finance committees but also by improving Parliament's documentation and research services. Specialised training in document research techniques should be offered to MPs and their collaborators.
Parliament should also be assisted, notably in its oversight function, by an independent Audit Office.
The Audit Office conducts financial audits at the request of Parliament. These audits should be carried out within timeframes which are in keeping with the political need for oversight. A deadline of six to eight months can be envisaged. The Audit Office can also draft a report on the execution of the budget which could inform the budget debate. Similarly, the Audit Office should systematically draft a report on the Budget Review Act for the n -1 budget during the debate on the n +1 budget.
The contribution of the Audit Office and possibly other Executive oversight bodies should not stand in the way of establishing an office responsible for assessing public policy within Parliament, notably from a gender perspective. This office should verify the efficiency of public expenditure measured against initial objectives.
Parliament should have the necessary resources for carrying out its budgetary and institutional functions. It is important for the records of committees as well as plenary debates to be widely disseminated, including through the use of new information technology.
Simple presentations on the contents of the Finance Act could be made to citizens. A news bulletin on Parliament activities could also be distributed.
Particular attention should be paid to public relations with the press and mass media by facilitating their access to the work of Parliament on the budget.
A gender approach to the budget
As a concept, gender refers to acquired socio-cultural characteristics which vary and evolve depending on religion, education, socio-cultural values or economic context and determine the role and place of men and women in society. The gender concept is based on the fact that differences between men and women and the roles and positions which they occupy are the result of a social and cultural construct based on inbred inequality. Consequently, an open approach based on equitable gender relations should give rise to the construction of a fairer, more equitable society. Gender-sensitive social analysis should facilitate for men and women alike, and at all levels, access to the means and benefits of development.
The gender approach is based on the principles of equity, equality and justice. Contrary to the integration of women in development approach which consisted of facilitating the integration of women in projects so that they could be more profitable in traditionally female areas, the gender approach targets the inequality which exists between men and women, boys and girls with a view to redressing roles and positions. For example, promoting the amendment of laws which discriminate against women or favouring women's access to land, or supporting their access to decision-making positions, thereby transforming women into the true beneficiaries and agents of development. The gender approach, therefore, takes into account the practical needs (food, health, lighter household chores, etc.) and the strategic interests of women (capacity building, equality, access to decision-making spheres of power).
Taking the gender concept into consideration in the budgetary process raises the issue of a new approach for development planning, parliamentary oversight and civil society participation in the dialogue on policy matters.
This new approach should go hand-in-hand with a mechanism or framework for following up gender-sensitive performance indicators as they apply to the strategic level (macro-economic and budget appropriations) as well as the operational level (sector-specific policy).
The Executive's general policy statement and the budget debate are for MPs key opportunities to request that the government take the gender dimension into consideration in draft budgets to be submitted to Parliament, if it has not already been done.
The creation of gender-disaggregated data bases and the establishment of observatories for monitoring the living conditions of men and women, youth and senior citizens would be effective instruments for periodically verifying the impact of investments geared at promoting gender equality.
Discussions on the gender approach in the budgetary process have brought to the forefront the initially inflexible positions of some on the effectiveness of this new concept. It is a concept which should be widely introduced at all levels so that those who will have to use it as a work tool can cover all aspects of its implications.
Nevertheless, many participants have welcomed the introduction of the topic and its efficient use in combating poverty and all other discriminations of which women are victims.
On this point, the Seminar has retained education, capacity building, functional literacy, participation in political dialogue, access to land and resources and decision-making as emerging themes to be developed in favour of women in order that they, as well-informed citizens, may contribute in a more meaningful way to development.
It should be acknowledged that the constraints inherent to the type of quasi-immutable procedures of formulating, executing and voting in the budget hamper the ability of parliamentarians to ensure in a regular and effective manner that the gender dimension is incorporated. Hence the reason why technical capacity building for planning specialists, MPs and support staff geared at identifying and analysing gender inequality and following up gender-disaggregated indicators is imperative in ensuring that investments have a real impact.
The task at hand is not an easy one and will not be for some time to come. For above and beyond our common will, it demands a breaking away from old habits which are the result of a social and not a biological construct, as well as from strong, fervent convictions based on value scales that inhibit the potential of initiatives and progressive capabilities in a spirit of dignity, equality and justice.
There is no magic formula for launching this type of initiative but lessons can be learned from country experiences (in Africa, particularly in South Africa and Uganda and to a lesser extent, Burkina Faso) by comparing strong and weak points, similarities and differences. Within this general trend, a partnership among the Executive, Parliament and gender-sensitive NGOs may well be a good practice.
Follow-up of the Seminar
The Inter-Parliamentary Union and its partners should continue to organise national and regional seminars of this kind for MPs and parliamentary staff in Africa and other parts of the world.
As has been suggested, a handbook on the theme of the Seminar should be made available to MPs as soon as possible.
Participants should share what they have learnt from the Seminar with all their colleagues within their respective national parliaments. In this regard, the relevant African parliaments are invited to make the most of this report, notably by making it available to the Finance Committee as a matter of priority as well as to other committees and, if possible, open it to discussion.
Furthermore, it would be a rewarding exercise for parliaments to open a debate on gender, possibly with the assistance of experts. Mixed parliamentary reflection groups could also be established so that their work, and particularly the Financial Act, could encompass the gender dimension.