Civic groups from Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan encourage government transparency and boost public participation in preparing the state budget.
Activists push 'citizens' budget'
SANA'A // Civic groups in three Arab countries are encouraging their governments to be more transparent in their spending, by bringing citizens into the budget-making process. More than 30 activists from Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan met in Sana'a last week to review a project started a year ago with the aim of boosting public participation in preparing the state budget. The project, called "Partners in Drafting a Reliable Budget" and implemented in co-operation with Beyster Institute in the United States, is financed by the Middle East Partnership Initiative. It is overseen by a coalition that includes the Centre for Civic Collaboration Partners in Jordan, the Yemen-based Human Rights Information and Training Center (HRITC) and the Bahraini Society for Human Rights. "In order to have a transparent and fair budget, society should not remain only a recipient of information on the budget but should have a say in drafting the budget in a way that its needs and priorities are addressed," said Eiz Eddin al Asbahi, the director of the HRITC. The idea of the coalition started after several Arab democracy activists met in Morocco over a year ago and agreed to work together on common issues such as fighting corruption, press freedom and public participation in state budgets. Mr al Asbahi said the project was proving successful despite cultural issues surrounding money. "In our culture, people think it is not their business to talk about taboos like the budget. We have been able to break this taboo and raise awareness among local communities that they should have their say about the budget, and that these figures are not something holy that cannot be discussed but are viable to public discussion." Over the last year, the three organisations have run several activities intended to raise awareness about the importance of the public having their say in how government money is spent. Meetings have been set up with legislators, local councils, the media as well as the private sector to see how society can influence the budget so that it meets their needs. Seven local council members and 170 civil society activists have been trained in three areas in Yemen, including Sana'a, Taiz and Aden. Mr al Asbahi said there had been a good response from Yemen's government, both at the top level and from local councils and that next year, the civic groups would get their first taste of setting the budgets for local councils. "We found good response from the parliament as well as the local councils, as our idea coincided with talk on how to move ahead to devolve more power to local government," he said. In Bahrain, according to Ahmed al Hujairi of the Bahraini Society for Human Rights, a recent TV show was dedicated to discussing how best to allocate the budget. "This means that we have been able to create a new environment of raising public awareness about the importance of public participation in setting the budget," Mr al Hujairi said. The three countries faced similar challenges, including explaining to all those involved why it was important that society be included in deciding how the budget is spent. "This is a new concept. The people used to tell us it was not their business to talk or set the budget and because of that we had to spend plenty of time to explain it to our partners. The six-month timeline of the project was not enough to carry out the activities we planned," said Fuad al Buthaiji, the project co-ordinator. Also, laws need to be amended before the public can be allowed to participate. Next year, the coalition plans to be more active by presenting its vision for how society, including, women, children and the disabled, can get more involved, and examples of which areas in the national budget it should influence. "We are working to present in 2009 the vision of the civil society with regards to preparing the budget in which the priorities of the people will be formulated. These budgets will not be transparent and fair unless the public is involved in their set-up. We are also aiming at expanding the coalition to include Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon," Mr al Asbahi said. firstname.lastname@example.org