Catherine Lalonde is FCI’s senior program officer for Francophone Africa.
I just returned from a week in Senegal where I attended a regional workshop to train civil society, parliamentarians and the media on budget analysis and advocacy for maternal and child health.
For years now, countries across the globe have said that maternal health is one of their top priorities; they’ve made statements, built coalitions, and developed strategies. On the surface, it seems as though a lot is happening in the realm of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH). Despite all the rhetoric, little progress has been made in improving the health of mothers and children, especially in the poorest countries in the world.
Since I started working at FCI a year ago, I have mainly been involved in advocacy projects aimed at keeping governments accountable to their commitments. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Kenya, we and our partners are constantly asking governments to invest in and implement programs that will improve RMNCH in their countries. Whenever we question why contraceptives aren’t available in the villages or why health centers are not staffed with qualified personnel, we almost always gets the same answers: there’s no money, we don’t have the funding, and we can’t afford it.
A budget is the single best indicator of a country’s priorities and the best way to tell whether a country is putting its money where its mouth is and whether or not it has taken steps towards fulfilling its maternal and child health commitments.
Organized by Harmonization for Health in Africa, UNICEF, WHO, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH), Save the Children, the InterParliamentary Union and FCI, the three-day budget advocacy workshop brought together members of local NGOs and reporters, along with parliamentarians and representatives from the ministries of finance and of health from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal.
A budget is public property; it represents the money that belongs to each and every citizen of a country and therefore, the public should have a genuine say in how the money is distributed and spent. But the countries represented in the workshop had budgets that rank among the least transparent in the world, according to the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey, which reveals what information is made public and when, as well as who gets to contribute to the process and how often. Of the workshop’s participating countries, Burkina Faso’s budget had the best transparency score– a measly 23 out of a 100; Niger, with the least transparent budget, scored a depressing 4 out of 100, with zero meaningful opportunities for civil society to contribute to the country’s budgeting process.
The workshop facilitators emphasized the important role the budget plays in RMNCH and the financial costs of not investing in RMNCH. It also taught how good health policies are developed and costed, and provided options for increasing fiscal space – the money to fund these policies – within the existing budget. This workshop provided participants with an outline of the budgeting process, and all of the opportunities in which civil society should be able to contribute. At the end, each of the delegations developed advocacy objectives and strategies to improve civil society’s contribution to the budgeting process in order to prioritize health. For example, the Burkina Faso delegation chose to advocate for increased investment in information systems to better track health data while the Malian delegation chose to focus advocacy on ensuring that Mali meets the Abuja declaration pledge to dedicate 15% of its budget to health.
A good friend of mine who works in finance once told me that talking about money scares people, that people often feel as though they don’t have enough knowledge to contribute and are too embarrassed to say so. The organizers and I were afraid that the workshop would be too long, too technical and hard to follow, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The participants lapped up every word on every slide, and were thrilled to be equipped with the knowledge of the role they can play in ensuring that their country’s budget prioritizes maternal and child health.
The presentation on increasing fiscal space even got a standing ovation!