Social accountability efforts seek better national and global economic governance

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National efforts to increase social accountability

Today there are several important citizen-led initiatives underway which highlight how people in many countries are increasingly asserting their right to information, and taking steps to improve social accountability at multiple levels regarding some of the most important post-2015 issues. For example in Spain, the 15M movement created a new national platform for a Citizen Debt Audit with the objective of promoting a popular analysis of the government’s public debt and the private debt subject to become public through bailouts. Through this platform, the characteristics of the debt will be revised in an open, participatory process, which will also have a comprehensive vision, analyzing not only economic and financial issues, but also the impact on gender, environment, culture and social and political aspects. The idea is that before adopting further austerity and budget-cutting measures, the public finances and the debt should be examined in order to determine whether it arose from legitimate public expenditures or whether it is the result of illegitimate transfers of public funds from taxpayers to the private sector, in order to compensate for the reckless risk-taking of Spain’s banking sector.

And in Tunisia, the new government of President Moncef Marzouki has taken a similarly tough stance regarding the debts inherited from the previous Ben Ali regime by demanding an audit of Tunisia’s external debts that can establish whether the funds benefited the people of Tunisia by financing bona fide development programs. The audit would thus distinguish between debts which are legitimate and therefore should be honoured and those which served the interests of the former rulers and their associates and therefore should be considered odious and thus repudiated. Insodoing, the new Tunisian government and domestic supporters of the audit initiative are setting a historic precedent in Africa that could serve the interests of not only the people of indebted African nations but also those of Africa’s creditors and donors.

At an April 2012 meeting in Brussels, debt audit advocates and CSOs from Spain and Tunisia joined with advocates from 10 other countries from Europe and North Africa to establish the new international platform, International Citizen Debt Audit Network (ICAN) under the slogan “We don’t owe! We won’t pay!” The ICAN includes advocates from Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Poland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Egypt and Tunisia and is bringing together movements and networks across these countries which are seeking to fight austerity measures through the implementation of citizen debt audits or campaigns against austerity and debt.

Citizen access to information is crucial for effective social accountability work, and one of the most important areas for transparency relates to national budgets. Regarding international efforts to further the budget transparency necessary for people to effectively engage in budget-tracking work, there have been some important initiatives undertaken over the last year to promote open, democratic, responsive, and accountable government. For example, in September 2011 advocates launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which brings together governments, civil society, and industry to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The Open Government Partnership formally launched on 20 September 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States) endorsed an Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Since then OGP has added commitments by 47 additional governments to join the Partnership. Co-chaired by the US and Brazil, the OGP calls on governments to commit to specific steps that will make their systems and practices more open and accountable.

In another case, nearly 100 civil society groups from as many countries and 12 international organizations met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in November 2011 to launch the global Civil Society Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability, and Participation, a new internationally coordinated effort to build an integrated movement of organizations that will work at the local, national, and international levels to promote government budgeting that is open and accountable to the public.

People around the world are also increasingly demanding greater social accountability with regard to the use of public tax receipts from the exploitation of natural resources such as oil and mining, and are increasingly engaging in international advocacy networks which are tacking these issues, such as the Tax Justice Network and the Publish What You Pay coalition. For example, in July 2012 CSOs which make up the Tanzania Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Coalition called on the government to adopt transparency reforms and take steps to ensure that every Tanzanian is well-informed on the pros and cons of the ongoing oil and gas exploration and development. The initiative was a key recommendation in the organization’s recent report submitted to Members of Parliament, calling for the establishment of an information package about oil and gas that should be available, accessible and comprehensible to all Tanzanians enabling them to link their private and public development and investment plans to the ongoing oil and gas development plans as part of the national development vision.

And in Uganda in August, advocates from the Civil Society Coalition on Oil along with over 100 other CSOs called on the UK to press its company, Heritage Oil, and the Ugandan government to allow public access to arbitration proceedings over a US $404 million tax dispute. The tax bill stems from Heritage’s sale of assets to Uganda’s Tullow Oil for US $1.45 billion in 2010. Heritage, which has already lost its case on the tax dispute in a Ugandan court, claims it does not owe the tax as its earnings were not subject to capital gains tax because the transaction in question was executed outside Uganda, and argues the terms of its licences with the country stated any arbitration should take place in London.  However, advocacy groups have criticised the Ugandan government for agreeing to the London proceedings. The advocates claim that Heritage Oil winning this case and avoiding paying the tax would create a deep sense of injustice in Uganda for many years to come. The CSOs in Uganda, which have long criticised the government's refusal to disclose terms of oil deals it signs with foreign companies, are also calling on Uganda's parliament to change the law to guarantee that any future dispute arbitration proceedings take place in an open court to facilitate public oversight of the oil sector.

These steps forward are encouraging signs that people intend on becoming more engaged and are demanding greater accountability. Furthermore, they should inform the types of improved social accountability that ought to be built into any post-2015 development framework. Efforts to support, encourage and expand initiatives such as citizen debt audits, greater transparency and access to information and enhanced public oversight on public debt and borrowing should be key features of a post-2015 agenda.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of CESR