UNICEF encourages national budget-makers to focus on human rights
By Rachel Bonham Carter
NEW YORK, USA, 1 February 2007 – UNICEF hosted a gathering in New York this week to step up the international dialogue on converting national budgets and fiscal policies into instruments for the realisation of human rights.
The conference, dubbed ‘Eyes on the Budget’, drew a hall full of delegates from United Nations member states, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. They heard two detailed UNICEF presentations on budgeting experiences in Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of Congo – along with further presentations from the World Bank, the UN Special Unit for South-South Cooperation and the NGO International Budget Project.
Economic and social policy expert Jorge Enrique Vargas noted the presence of representatives from very different countries and organisations, all focused on budgeting for social development.
“They’re discussing ways of looking at the budget as a political tool and not simply as a technical instrument,” he said, “and as a political tool with a human rights perspective, which is the mandate of the United Nations, after all. It gives me hope that many of our countries can move forward towards guaranteeing minimum conditions for everyone, especially boys and girls.”
Transparency in budgeting
Mr. Vargas has been working with UNICEF and the Government of Ecuador to improve the focus of its national budget. Drawing on that experience, he outlined a conceptual framework of rights-based public policy at the start of the meeting, laying a foundation for the discussions that followed.
“The budget is a social contract,” he said. “It contains the vision that society has of its future, including the effort and resources needed to achieve that vision. Once the budget includes human rights, then the rights become real because they are within reach of the people.”
The presentation from Ecuador by UNICEF’s Berenice Cordero and Daniel Badillo described how increased budgetary transparency has enabled improved social investments for children.
In contrast, the presentation from DR Congo told the story of a country just beginning to build its budget from a human rights perspective. UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Anthony Bloomberg explained that the government is doing what it can but that overseas development assistance is needed for the work to progress.
“At present, basic services in health and education are financed by user fees,” Mr. Bloomberg pointed out, illustrating the need for assistance.
“This actually constrains the use of social services,” he added. “So you only have half the children in school and a very small percentage of people using health facilities because they have to pay fees they cannot afford. Also, you have a situation where use of services is directly related to good outcomes for children – so if there are fee obstacles we will never achieve the Millennium Development Goals.”
Involving the wider society
UN Special Unit on South-South Cooperation Director Yiping Zhou suggested during his presentation that there are four key considerations when ensuring rights-based budgeting:
The common thread between these points is transparency and the involvement of the wider society at every stage, he said.
This view was mirrored by World Bank lead Social Development Specialist Andrew Norton. “The emphasis on making information available in forms that ordinary people can understand and process to get accountability,” he noted, “is something we’ve seen work in other parts of the world. But in Ecuador, they seem to have done it in a particularly systematic way and with a great deal of cooperation and buy-in from the authorities.”
Debate between presentations was lively, with delegates keen to share their own experiences and press presenters on how certain ideas would translate to other countries.
By the end of the day, there had been so many ideas mooted that one delegate claimed to have found the session somewhat “intimidating.” She went on to ask why UNICEF, with its primary focus on children, should involve itself with wider national budgets.
The response came from UNICEF Program Division Deputy Director Yoriko Yasukawa. “It is not possible to work on child rights without ensuring there are enough resources allocated to it,” she said, wrapping up proceedings. “That is why we work on budgets.”
30 January 2007: