Protests against poor delivery of services such as water, toilets, health and education, have become such a ubiquitous part of the South African landscape they barely make the news: as the delivery problems continue, so do the protests, and the vicious cycle of creeping poverty and mounting frustration continues.
But "social auditing" - a new kind of civil society activism that helps empower communities to gather the financial information they need to pressure for real change - may turn these protests into more than hot air, and ultimately help bring about tangible lifestyle improvements for the communities themselves.
Around the world social auditing is being seen as a way to empower people to monitor the delivery of programmes aimed at them and to help ensure that these programmes are not corrupted, stalled or mismanaged, and that they deliver what is actually required.
In Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, for example, a social audit of portable toilets conducted by a triumvirate of NGOs and affected communities, has found the toilet contractors wanting in a myriad of ways and the group has the detailed, documented evidence to prove it.
Pioneered by the Social Justice Coalition working alongside Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know) and assisted by the Washington-based International Budget Partnership (IBP), the group conducted several auditing campaigns to show how the community was not getting access to proper sanitation.
Although the city signed strict contracts with tenders to supply portable toilet solutions, the community's own research showed that: there were not enough toilets, they were broken, not cleaned adequately, and posed "life threatening risks to the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the city".
They also revealed that the city had no viable long-term plan to provide sanitation - a basic human right - to all its residents. Involving court actions and demonstrations, the campaign is ongoing, but the city of Cape Town has acknowledged that its sanitation plans needs to be improved and monitored better.
Holding government accountable
Ndifuna Ukwazi deputy director Jared Rossouw told IRIN that ultimately the goal is to "build a social audit movement in South Africa. We want to be able to engage with local governments around service delivery.
We want them to provide us with data, to see this as a legitimate form of community oversight. It's about educating communities to understand the data so that they know what's being paid for, so they can use that information to conduct audits and hold government accountable." Rossouw says there is interest from some quarters in national government to promote this form of "citizen-based monitoring of service delivery".
In India, the government is more involved in social auditing, with mixed results. An NGO called Samarthan has pioneered social auditing in that country, with its attempts to make the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (legislation passed in 2005 by the government to grant families the right to 100 days of paid labour per year) a reality.
The right-to-work programme, the biggest in the world, was from the outset beset with bureaucratic problems and large-scale corruption. This led to Samarthan, which operates in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, to conduct social audits at the village level, "to follow the paperwork up and the money down".
The social audits bought to light mismanagement and corruption at every turn: local elites were embezzling money and people were being denied jobs. The problems were exacerbated by a culture of corruption among officials and a culture of subservience among poor and illiterate farmworkers, who feared asking questions or challenging local authorities, says Samarthan executive director Yogesh Kumar.
Despite a backlash by local officials who tried to subvert Samarthan's work, media attention eventually made the government more open to trying to sort out the problems and these audits are now conducted in partnership with it.
However, Kumar says many audits are simply "happening on paper", are not widespread enough and are of uneven quality. But gradually, he says, a "social auditing culture of transparency and accountability is building". "Once we do a good social audit, the villagers realize the value of it. The larger push will come when there is a strong political will for this, when the senior politicians take it up."
Similar programmes in Ghana and Mexico have exposed the weaknesses of government programmes to help the poor by means of civil society audits and involvement in the budgeting process.
In Mexico, Fundar's Subsidios al Campo campaign showed how the government programme to give cash payments to farmers in need ultimately only benefited the wealthiest of them. This led to the government setting down new rules to make the process more transparent and reduce the risk of fraud.
In Ghana, advocacy organization Social Enterprise Development Foundation (SEND-Ghana) found that a school feeding programme was not being implemented properly. Partly through their efforts, local communities got involved in monitoring the programme. Also, basic services such as water supplies, toilet facilities, health and education services, were improved as a result.
South Africa's other notable example of social auditing involves the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), founded in 1998. It was partly the TAC's budget analysis that led to the government being compelled to provide ARV drugs to pregnant women to prevent them passing on the HIV virus to their unborn babies.
TAC was able to show that the health department could in fact afford to pay for the drugs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of deaths were prevented and the country now has a massive antiretroviral treatment programme that targets more than 1.2 million people.
Towards more transparent budgets
While civil society can play a key role in monitoring how budgets are spent, governments have to play their part by opening their books, involving citizens in spending decisions and doing their own audits on how effectively the money is being spent. IBP publishes a bi-annual index, ranking 100 countries it surveys, according to how open their budgets are.
One of the reasons why governments have not achieved the Millennium Development Goals is because they are not spending public money properly, says Vivek Ramkumar, IBP's director of International Advocacy and Open Budget Initiative. Part of the problem, he says, is that in many countries, the allocation and spending of budgets is still shrouded in mystery.
With the global recession putting the squeeze on aid from donor countries, governments in developing countries are under growing pressure to meet the demands of service delivery themselves. "What we are seeing is that if this is done in an open way and if information is shared with the public, the priorities are set in a way that truly reflects national needs."
The budgetary process involves many macro and micro decisions that take place throughout the year. "While some of these decisions require a sophisticated understanding of global financing... this is not all that budgeting is about," says Ramkumar. There are many political decisions that require citizen buy-in.
He points out that sales tax, for example, is being paid by poor and marginalized populations themselves. "They bear the brunt of decisions that are being discussed and implemented at a higher level". There will be more buy-in, along with a "culture of trust", when citizens are consulted along the way, he says. "At the micro level, citizens do not need to be highly educated to know whether resources are being used properly in their areas," he adds.
According to the IBP's 2012 index, the countries that are most open in their budgeting processes are New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, Sweden, Norway and France, while at the bottom are the oil-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar and Qatar.
The results show that richer and more democratic countries have higher scores, while "oil-dependent autocracies" tend to have lower scores. Ramkumar points to the "oil curse" for these countries, as well as others dependent on extractive resources, which do not require a tax base from the population and are therefore less accountable to them.
But others, like Afghanistan (dependent on aid), Mexico (hydrocarbon) and countries in the Middle East, like Jordan and sub-Saharan countries like Uganda and South Africa, also have high scores in comparison to their peers.
Also, emerging economies in the global south such as Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia, are doing better than their counterparts in the north like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, which proves the point, says the IBP, that "any government that has the political will to advance reforms can make its budget appropriately transparent".
The trend is definitely towards openness rather than secrecy. Fifteen years ago most governments kept their budgets close to their chests for fear of disrupting markets. But "the myth that budgeting needs to be done in a secret manner by a small number of elite individuals from the Finance Ministry has now been exploded," says Ramkumar.
Despite slow progress, however, the 2012 survey findings nevertheless still "provide a grim picture of budget transparency, participation and accountability. The majority of countries surveyed provide insufficient budget information and few opportunities for public engagement with the budget." Unless the pace of change picks up, it will take at least a generation for most countries to achieve budget transparency. "This could mean a generation of wasted opportunities and wasted resources."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]