Tanzania has shown how civil society can contribute to economic justiceBy Semkae Kilonzo
Source: The Guardian - Poverty Matters Blog
By asking the right questions, citizens can help to fight poverty, promote transparency and reinforce social and economic rights
In the Ileje district of southern Tanzania, expectant mothers about to give birth had to cross a crocodile-infested river into Malawi because a local medical centre did not have enough money to pay for a midwife.
It took a campaign by civil society organsations and citizens to uncover that there was money available, but that it had somehow been diverted. Once it became clear there was a staff budget, remedial action was taken. Now the women of Ileje receive pregnancy and birth delivery services without risking their lives on a needless, long and hazardous journey.
In Tanzania, civil society groups stress the importance of transparent and inclusive government budgets to improve service delivery, reduce poverty and achieve social and economic rights. But often it takes active and brave citizens using their "right to know" to have a positive influence on what governments do on their behalf.
A year of persistent questions from Lake Victoria fishermen was needed to discover a serious discrepancy between the levies they paid to use a fish market and the amount the council reported receiving. Scrutiny prevented a potentially ruinous and unnecessary 100% levy hike for the market premises.
Though the Tanzanian economy has been growing by an average of 7% annually for more than a decade, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Approximately a quarter of the adult population cannot read, life expectancy is 58 years, and just 14% of the country's 48 million people have access to electricity.
With African countries' budgets under continual strain, civil society organisations increasingly have to understand how they can ensure tax revenue is spent wisely – and even that it is collected.
In Tanzania, this has meant raising the issue of curtailment of cross-border illicit financial flows. Governments cannot afford to ignore this if they truly want to make a difference. Not with the ratio of illicit money flowing out of poor nations to the amount of foreign aid standing at roughly $10:$1.
Yet authorities are sometimes bewildered when citizens request budget transparency. "Why would anyone outside government want to see boring technical details about how public money is intended for use?" they ask.
Budget information can be presented as relevant and useful to the public, however. For instance, our organisation managed to persuade the government to issue a "citizens' budget" (pdf) – a simplified digest of the national budget. We can extend this by also producing simplified versions that show how revenue will be generated, including how much will come from domestic taxes, natural resource extraction and foreign aid, which accounts for about 30% of national spending.
Although tax justice is only being tackled by a few urban civil society organisations in Tanzania, it will become increasingly prominent once massive potential revenues from recently discovered gas deposits begin flowing in a decade.
Increasingly, the public is recognising the potential for the Tanzanian gas sector to play a huge part in the country's rapid economic growth. But concerns remain that the lives of the poor – particularly those in local communities close to existing resources – will not improve, due to budget and tax mismanagement.
Solving these problems is a much bigger fight, requiring co-ordinated international efforts by governments and civil society across the globe. But national civil society organisations can play their part. They can press their governments to introduce mechanisms that will help improve global financial transparency and implement suitable regulation to check the murky system that limits the mobilisation of resources for poor countries. If all governments adopt high standards for transparency, we will be closer to seeing greater domestic resource mobilisation and economic growth among poor countries.
But there is even more at stake than ensuring poor countries receive their fair share of revenue. The focus on efficient tax collection allows for a fresh debate on fairness. When we talk about curtailing illicit financial flows, we move beyond asking how we share resources equitably. We begin to tackle how we ensure the collection of public money in a manner that is just and bridges the gap between rich and poor countries. This means we are fighting for inclusive economic growth.
• Semkae Kilonzo is co-ordinator of Policy Forum, a network of more than 100 Tanzanian civil society organisations focusing on public money accountability. Towards Transparency: Making the Global Financial System Work for Development, the Financial Transparency Coalition 2013 Conference, will take place in Dar es Salaam on 1-2 October. To join in the discussion, or ask the panel questions, tweet us using the #FTCDar2013 or follow FTC on Twitter @FinTrCo
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