A new global report produced by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) has found that governments are falling short of managing their fiscal policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in a transparent and accountable manner.

IBP is an international organisation that works with civil society partners in over 120 countries dedicated to ensuring governments are responsible stewards of public funds.

Among the 120 jurisdictions surveyed, including South Africa, their Managing COVID Funds Report finds that more than two-thirds of governments across regions provided limited or minimal levels of accountability in the introduction and implementation of their early fiscal policy responses.

By the end of 2020, governments had mobilised some $14 trillion to meet the unprecedented demands of the pandemic, but across the board, those allocations represented a significant departure from normal fiscal policy processes.

Director of the International Budget Partnership, Vivek Ramkumar, says they have heard many stories of abuse of public funds.

“We’ve also heard many stories about abuse of public monies by unscrupulous officials and corrupt actors. But what we have not seen is adequate coverage of the systems that need to be put in place to curb abuse of funds and to ensure that they are reaching their intended targets and beneficiaries. Our report focuses on this precise issue.”

New global report on governments’ fiscal policy responses to COVID-19 pandemic: 

Key measures to enhance accountability

Among the key findings, governments failed to adopt key measures to enhance accountability. The role of legislatures or parliaments has been limited during the pandemic with almost 50% of countries introducing fiscal policy measures through executive decrees.

Public input around COVID-19 response packages was virtually non-existent; excluding the public voice in priority-setting decisions during the pandemic.

“Our assessment shows that more than 2/3rds of surveyed governments are falling short of managing their fiscal responses in a transparent and accountable manner, thereby jeopardizing the effectiveness and impact of their responses to the crisis. These shortcuts and limitations are neither necessary nor inevitable. Many countries across regions and incomes have chosen a different path and urgent and speedy response does not have to come at the expense of accountability,” says Ramkumar.

Meaningful efforts to engage population

Ramkumar says only ten out of 120 countries made meaningful efforts to engage with their populations on the design and oversight of relief monies while civil society groups have worked to fill the space.

“Even as governments largely kept the public at bay, civil society groups have been active in mobilising local communities and amplifying their needs to government. One of the most successful examples of civil society and govt collaboration is the Asivikelane initiative in South Africa, which is giving an active voice to informal settlement residents in major cities who are faced with severe basic services shortages during the crisis. Through targeted advocacy and campaign, the initiative has already secured improved access to water, sanitations and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than a million people.”

The report lists only four countries; Australia, Norway, Peru and the Philippines, as having adequate levels of accountability.

South Africa is ranked among a group of 29 countries as having some levels of accountability along with the United States, Canada and Nigeria among others.

“Governments can adopt reforms now such as publishing monthly progress reports and disclosing procurement details in open formats. They can plus up resources for national auditors to conduct expedited audits and take remedial measures in response to their audit reports. They can take actions to restore legislative oversight,” Ramkumar says.

With an underlying message that when governments don’t deliver as promised, under-served communities bear the brunt.