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Using Government Budgets as a Monitoring Tool: The Children’s Budget Unit in South Africa

The budget is government’s operational plan to deliver a better life for our people. It sets out what you will pay in taxes, how we will spend that money, and what we will deliver. It is a synthesis of all our government policies. The budget is our contract with the nation. Trevor Manual, South African Minister of Finance, 1998 Budget Review

Since 1995 the Children’s Budget Unit (CBU) of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), based in Cape Town, has been using national and provincial government budgets as monitoring mechanisms to advance child-specific socio-economic rights. Budget monitoring allows us to analyze how government conceptualises, implements, and allocates budgets to fulfil its legal obligation to help realize these rights.

The rights of the child are explicit, and the government is legally bound to fulfil them: in the South African Constitution, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the African Charter, the child has the right to political, socio-economic, cultural, economic, and environmental rights. In addition, the South African Constitution specifies that the child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services, and social services.

Why use budgets? The budget is the key policy instrument used by a government to ensure that things happen, and thus shows a government’s true priorities. A government’s programs that fulfil its obligations that help realize socio-economic rights must be included in its budget, and it must account not only for the amount budgeted, but also the amount actually spent. Budgets, therefore, are instruments that allow us to monitor how services are delivered and policies implemented. The monitoring of government budgets can lead to policy reform, establish a path for “transparent, effective and efficient” budgeting principles, and make it possible to provide concrete recommendations for program evaluation and improvement.

Information gleaned from budget analysis can be used to educate people about their rights, and help them access these rights. Advancement of human rights is a two-way stream. People in need of help must communicate their needs to those in power, and articulate sustainable solutions. And those in power need to know if their methods and programs are effective to ensure that a win-win situation is created. The budget-monitoring tactic works to aid both sides.

Our work has proven that a budget-monitoring project, used effectively, can be an important tool in changing policy. South Africa, for instance, has an extensive social security program for children. The CBU has conducted numerous studies of the accessibility and effectiveness of this program, discovering discriminatory access in undeveloped and rural areas, and a governmental lack of administrative capacity that also hindered access to the program. In our 2001 study, “Budgeting for child socio-economic rights: Government obligations and the child’s right to social security and education” (Cassiem, Streak: 2001, Idasa), we recommended that that age limit of children accessing one of the social security grants be raised from six to 14. This recommendation was put into practice by the government in its 2003/04 budget, and we, together with other civil society organizations, are now focusing on proposals that the program include all children under 18.

In this tactical notebook, after a brief introduction to Idasa and the Children’s Budget Unit, we present a case study of how budget monitoring was used to see how the South African government fulfilled its obligation to provide social security to children. We then generalize the monitoring approach, outlining key questions, and summarize some of the tactic’s positive results. Finally, we offer some discussion of the tactic’s complexity, which should help others think about how to apply it in their own situations.

 Full Report   Available at New Tactics in Human Rights, a project by the Center for Victims of Torture.