The Namibian (Windhoek)

24 January 2013

Namibia: Budget Watchdog - 'Open Your Books'

GOVERNMENT continues to give Namibians "some" insight into its national budget, but not enough for the public to hold it fully accountable for how tax dollars are spent.

With the 2013-14 Budget expected to be tabled during the last week of February, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday released the findings the Open Budget Survey 2012, which it compiled for the global watchdog, International Budget Partnership (IBP).

Namibia scored 55 out of a possible 100.

Out of the 100 countries participating the IBP's bi-annual survey, Namibia was ranked as the country with the 34th most open budget. Namibia's score of 55 is better than the 53 it scored in 2010, but wasn't enough to lift it into the category of countries where citizens get a "substantial" peek into the state coffers - for that, Namibia needed a score of between 61 and 80.

Since 2006, Namibia has been stuck in the category where the public only has access to "some" of government's finances, scoring between 41 and 60. In 2006, it scored 50, before dipping to 46 in 2008.

IPPR executive director Graham Hopwood yesterday said besides transparency, a more open budget could boost Government's accountability, credibility and effectiveness, while curbing corruption and improving Namibia's investment environment.

He congratulated Government on improving its Open Budget Index (OPI) score, and particularly on introducing the 'Citizens' Guide to the National Budget', a leaflet containing yearly public spending and revenue in a nutshell.

'CHALLENGING'

However, the OPI score shows that the glimpse Namibians have into the budget, makes it "challenging for the public to hold Government to account", Hopwood said.

Counting against Namibia was the fact that Government neither produce a pre-budget statement, nor a mid-year review. In addition, Government's in-year reports - monthly or quarterly reports of actual revenue, expenditure and debt - are internal and not available for public scrutiny.

Hopwood said according to best practice standards, a pre-budget statement should be released at least four weeks before the budget is tabled.

"This would give MPs [members of parliament] and the public an idea of what is contained in the budget and a sense of the constraints and opportunities which affect the drawing up of the budget," Hopwood said. This way, people would have more realistic expectations of the budget, he said.

A pre-budget statement would also "enhance the quality of the eventual debate" of the budget - in Parliament, as well as by the public and civil society.

A mid-year review is equally important for transparency.

"Revised estimates in the mid-year review should reflect both economic and technical changes as well as new policy proposals, including the reallocation of funds between administrative units, with a comprehensive explanation for any estimate adjustments," Hopwood said. It should also include a revised economic forecast for the full fiscal year, taking into account actual economic performance and new projections for the remainder of the year.

In the region, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa already produce mid-year reviews.

In-year reports should also be open to the public, the OPI recommended. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe already produce these.

MORE AND BETTER DEBATE

The OPI also called for a strengthening of Namibia's legislatures.

"Parliament could have a formal pre-budget debate prior to the tabling of the executive's budget proposal. This could focus on the pre-budget statement at least six weeks before the tabling of the budget," Hopwood said, adding that Government should consult with MPs as part of determining budget priorities. The public could contribute through public hearings, written suggestions, and social networks, he said.

Government has the "potential to greatly expand budget transparency by introducing a number of short-term and medium-term measures, some of which can be achieved at almost no cost to the Government", the Open Budget Survey report stated.

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