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"Citizen participation should be key to the budget process": Prof. Leonor Briones

Feb 25, 2011

Professor Leonor Magtolis Briones explains why it is important for citizens to be involved in the process of national budget. She also emphasises on framing a gender-sensitive budget as the cornerstone for the empowerment of women in any country.

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Manila: Professor Leonor Magtolis Briones is a well-respected public figure in the Philippines. A professor by training, she has served in government in various capacities, including as National Treasurer, Presidential Advisor for Social Development (Cabinet rank), Secretary to the Commission of Audit. She was also the vice president for finance and administration in the University of the Philippines. Today, as lead convener of Social Watch Philippines, a network of civil society organisations that work for equitable social development, Briones is one of the anchors of a unique strategy to ensure that citizens participate more directly in budget making. This she sees as a central factor for more responsible and democratic governance. Pamela Philipose met up with her on a recent visit to Manila.

Q: Why is it important for citizens to be involved in the national budget?

A: People need to be interested in the national budget because it is a reflection of the kind of development adopted by their governments. Two aspects need to be highlighted here. First, the money comes from the people. So they have a right to know how it is being spent and how it is being raised. In a sense, the people should own their country’s budget. Second, the priorities of the government are different from the priorities of people. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that people’s priorities find their way into the government’s priorities. Today, there are a lot of discussions on data and development – and this, of course, is important. But it will have to be linked to the real interests and preferences of ordinary citizens. This is all part of the accountability process.

Q: But the budget process seems so opaque.

A: We need to de-mystify the process and that’s why we need a massive involvement with the media. As civil society, you have to build capacity within people, and even within the media, to understand budget making and participate in the process. 

Q: In Philippines, civil society organisations seem to have built up a very interesting model of people’s participation in budget-making.

A: Traditionally, there have always been different lobbies for the budget and we wanted our voices to be heard as well. Although we have been doing this for years, from 2006 onwards we tried to formalise things. We chose to focus on health, education and the environment. Later, we added agriculture to the list. 

Q: What does this process entail?

A: The first thing we needed to do was to look at the macro-economic framework for the budget. There are usually four stages in budget-making. The first is budget preparation, which is done by the executive. We needed to penetrate this process and we tried to do this by working on an alternate budget. Then there is budget appropriation, when it gets published and debated in public. At this stage we analyse the budget from the point of view of our alternate budget, and meet with partners in the legislature with our observations. Then there is budget implementation when we actually monitor the budget. For instance, if you have been successful in getting some of your agendas into the budget document, you must take care to ensure that they are actually implemented. Finally, there is the budget accountability stage, when you look at the audits of the budget and point out where things were badly implemented. We actually shadow the executive all the way. They find this very annoying of course, but we are not there to make their lives comfortable, after all. When we do all this, we also make sure that we publicise our findings all the time, so that there is public awareness.

Q: How did you personally get interested in budget-making?

A: It was a combination of my academic background and my experience in government. I was Secretary to the Commission On Audit. Then I became Treasurer of the Philippines and then President of the University of the Philippines. So it was quite natural for me to be interested in budget-making. My concern always was to make sure that the government sets enough resources aside to address social concerns. In order to assess this, you must actually estimate how much this would cost. That’s why the alternative budget process is so important.

Q: How do you bring a concern like gender on to the table?

A: Gender is a cross-cutting issue. You can look at the gender aspect in all four phases that I have just underlined. Is the budget gender-sensitive? That’s the biggest concern. Is there gender-consciousness in the executive’s various interventions? More than half the population is women, and they are among those who are suffering the most. If you look at a poor person – at least in the Philippines – she is more likely than not to be a woman, a minority/tribal, and be located in a rural region. We need to do more for that person.

Q: At what point in your career did you feel that gender was a central concern? 

A: For a long time, my success as a professional woman made me blind to the gender dimension. I used to argue that if I, as an individual, can achieve success on my own merit, why can’t other women also do so? But later, when I became part of civil society activism, I realised the innumerable disempowering aspects of being a woman. Take even the local school – if it does not have proper facilities like toilets and so on, you are exposing girls to dangers. Yet how many of our politicians and administrators bother to even consider such aspects? Gender sensitivity is very important, and today I try and underline this whenever I can.

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