The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Finance and Economic Planning last week held pre-budget consultation meetings for the 2016 national budget. The meetings were held in different parts of the country from Monday through to Friday.
The purpose of these meetings, which are provided for under section 28 (5) of the Public Finance Management Act, is to allow independent organisations and members of the public to submit their verbal and written contributions on what they wish to be included in the national budget for the coming year.
Turnout was, however, poor for the consultation meeting held in Harare. A head count showed that there were about 100 people present including the members of parliament, members of staff from parliament, business professionals and entrepreneurs, civil society representatives and a few journalists. Poor turnout was also reported in Karoi where about 50 people attended the meeting.
During the Harare meeting, it emerged that most of the people who were prepared to make presentations were representatives of independent non-governmental organisations. Some of the represented organisations include, Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS), National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU) and Zimbabwe Centre for Business Opportunities (ZCBO).
Presentations from organisational representatives seemed well thought out and researched. During the time allocated to individuals, a few business people seemed to dominate the conversations as they were quite acquainted with the language and background knowledge that seemed to be driving the conversation. Clearly, however, there were factors that were limiting the participation of interested members of the general public.
Guidelines for presentations provided ahead of the meetings stated that presentations would necessarily include areas around expenditure prioritisation across sectors, recurrent and capital expenditure, sources of revenue, the budget process and public finance management, gender budgeting and rights-based and pro-poor budgeting.
In as much as these requirements were ideal, they were not very easy for the ordinary person to comprehend and that could be the reason why some individuals decided to leave the room without making a contribution to the Portfolio Committee. Some of those who did manage to say something, ended up stating their grievances with very little to contribute to what they wanted to be incorporated into the national budget. As a result, Chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Finance and Economic Planning and Member of Parliament for Chimanimani West, Munacho Mutezo constantly had to redirect individuals towards the relevant subject of the meeting.
Possible hindrances to public participation
Shadreck Mutariki who managed to contribute during the meeting stated that he thought it better for him to deliver oral contributions because he did not have time to read and understand the demands of the guidelines.
“I felt it was much better to come and present my thoughts because I was not sure if they would consider my recommendations in writing if I did not follow the guidelines,” explained Mutariki.
A lady who only identified herself as Maureen, also attended the meeting without having access to the guidelines, but through listening to the discussion got the sense that respondents were expected to display a certain level of knowledge of the economy for their contributions to be considered.
“I was prepared to say something and ask some questions but the people who spoke knew what they were talking about better than me,” she said.“The meeting was not what I expected, next time I will come a little more prepared.”
How to encourage public participation
Firstly the guidelines need to be written in a simplified manner using very simple English which is easy to comprehend. It may also be useful to use radio and television stations to share these guidelines in a more educating way. An online document surely can be intimidating to someone who hardly interacts with a computer in their day to day life. Also, an online document that can only be shared by email is not accessible to many Zimbabweans.
Asking organisational representatives to make their contributions before everyone is also likely to set a precedence that contributions are to be made in a certain way. This could have been why Maureen felt she was not prepared to make her contributions during the Harare meeting. If possible, it may be more conducive to allow members of the public to speak first then organisations last so that individuals will feel free to say what they want to say in the least intimidating way possible.
Poor time management by individual contributors has been offered as the reason why organisations are often given first preference. If that is the case, then more time needs to be allocated for these meetings. Had more than 100 people attended the Harare meeting, three hours was not going to be adequate provided that everyone would have wanted to contribute. As such, parliament should consider allocating more than one day for consultation meetings per area to try and accommodate as many people as possible.
Also, the meetings were held on working days in all areas. There is a high probability that some people could not attend due to work commitments. It would therefore be advisable to have one meeting on working days and one meeting on weekends per area to ensure that people with different schedules are able to attend.
Despite having been allowed to make their contributions, several people expressed concern on whether their contributions were even going to be considered in the drafting of the budget. The people demanded to be notified of all the processes that take place after the meetings, until the national budget is announced, so that it becomes clear how their views have been used in the budget formulation process.
If government is to improve the 2017 pre-budget consultation meetings then they should try and action some of the recommendations given by the public. Increased and efficient public participation during these meetings will ensure that these gatherings are more than just a constitutional procedure. But for now, it seems the government will have to do with the little they gathered from the meetings held.
All images by Daphne Jena