By Manuela Garza
Manuela Garza is an independent consultant and is co-founder of Colectivo Meta. She is currently engaged as a consultant to FCI’s Mobilizing Advocates from Civil Society (MACS) project, on which she works to build the budget analysis skills of health-focused civil society organizations in Burkina Faso.
For the past seven years, it was my good fortune to work at a job that allowed me to work with brave and committed activists in interesting and beautiful places. As a staff member of the International Budget Partnership, I found myself in Mombasa, Kenya, where ordinary citizens conducted ‘social audits’ to claim their communities’ fair share of government financial resources; in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where 500 women and men voiced their priorities for spending of earthquake rehabilitation funds; in Beijing, where civil society groups were trained to pursue budget transparency and accountability in a context where silence rules; and in Abbra, a remote region in the Philippines, where rural villagers have advocated for and achieved truly participatory budgeting.
In recent months, FCI’s MACS initiative has been working in Burkina Faso to strengthen the capacity of civil society groups to effectively advocate for more and smarter spending of public funds to improve reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health in their communities. Last October, I was engaged, together with my Malian colleague Boubacar Bougodogo and Burkinabé budget researcher Hermann Doanio, to develop and facilitate a weeklong workshop to train grassroots advocates to understand and engage with public budgets. We arrived in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital, on a calm and warm West African evening, all of us ready with our slides on the budgeting process, our spreadsheets, our budget calculation formulas, and our case studies. Business as usual, or so we thought.
Little did we know that, in the course of that week, the citizens of Burkina Faso would overthrow the dictator who had been ruling the country for the past 27 years. Thousands of people (young people, mostly) took to the streets with a very clear message for President Blaise Campaoré: they wanted him out, for good. They were no longer willing to tolerate corruption and abuse of power, they declared: Burkina is ready for democracy.
In the midst of these historic events, you may be wondering, what did our Burkinabé colleagues, who had put this week aside for budget training, do? Was the workshop still relevant during these revolutionary days? Of course, every participant was closely watching the dramatic events taking place outside the training venue; each participant was concerned and worried about what they would mean for their families and their country. At the same time, however, they remained committed to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to learn about a new tool that will enable them to carry out evidence-based advocacy. They stuck around, they learned, and they questioned; they talked about their country, about change, and about what these new skills could help them achieve. They discussed the potential for how things could change, including in the way that the government sets priorities and spends public money— that is, the people’s money!
Is budget accountability still relevant in a context of earthshaking change? My experience says that it is. Revolutions are tricky things: countries and their institutions can change either for better or for worse, and conditions may take a long time to stabilize. If change is managed wisely and stability returns quickly, as seems to be happening in Burkina, revolution can provide an opportunity for a fundamental shift in the balance of power—toward the people. This can vastly increase the possibility of reshaping inefficient and corrupt institutions, of fostering new structures that institutionalize transparency and accountability. In a country like Burkina Faso, accountability for public resources is an essential element of overall accountability.
In this context, investing in building the skills of civil society groups is crucial, because the significance and sustainability of positive change largely depends on a well-organized and well-prepared civil society. These are the times when advocates and grassroots organizations most need support, when citizens most need to develop new knowledge and skills in civic participation, when accountability and participation-related processes are more necessary than ever. The MACS project is doing just that, and FCI’s local partners in Burkina Faso will continue to arm themselves with new tools such as budget analysis, so that their advocacy has more impact, their voices are heard, and they can be effective forces for real, sustainable change.
Good luck to them and to Burkina Faso–a country that many people cannot even locate on a map but which has a lot to teach us when it comes to citizen power!