In response to the Paris Declaration (2005) and the Accra Agenda (2008) leading to commitments for donors to channel more of their aid to developing countries through country systems, there has been a growing shift away from program and project aid – typically managed or overseen directly by the contributing development partner – to budget support where aid is channeled directly through the developing country treasury’s consolidated revenue fund account. As one might expect, as a consequence of this growing shift to budget support there has been a corresponding increase in donor focus on the performance of Public Finance Management in the countries that receive budget support. This is as should be, given the increased real or perceived fiduciary risks associated with the use of country systems to manage the hard earned taxes of the citizens of development partner countries.
But this is only one side of the story. Unfortunately there is not yet that much interest or appreciation in the other side of the story. On the other side of the story are the citizens of the developing countries who may suffer as a consequence of tinkering with Public Finance Management systems in the name of reform, which may only serve to undermine current weak systems and set them back even further. Public Finance Management seems inaccessible to most of us. Even where it is accessible to us we deem it to be boring, inconsequential and something only dreary accountants and auditors need bother about. But think, Public Finance Management is about our money, it is about our children’s future, it is about our development.
The importance of Public Finance Management and its reform derives as a consequence of its direct role in implementing policy – be it about improving education, achieving better health care, promoting tourism, or increasing agricultural yields. With weak Public Finance Management systems, even where policy makers come up with sound policy, it may not be possible to implement such policy effectively. Further, quite uniquely Public Finance Management performance affects the performance of all other sectors – yes the macroeconomic environment and so private sector opportunity and the service delivery in agriculture, health, education, transport, energy, public safety and the list goes on. When it works, all other sectors have a chance of succeeding; but when Public Finance Management fails all other sectors fail.
We as citizens of developing countries ought to be more concerned about who drives the agenda for Public Finance Management reform. Is it the IMF, as it imposes Public Finance Management Reform conditionalities that are not just tied to strengthening or improving budgetary systems, but are tied specifically to the adoption of particular reform approaches – despite such approaches having in some instances failed in more than one country. Is it the World Bank as it makes the adoption of integrated financial management information systems (IFMIS) the basis for support in reforming the Public Finance Management systems? Or is it the result of wide internal debate and consideration by the country citizenry influencing their elected leaders to address the basic things that they know do not work using approaches that are within the reach of our capacity rather than adopt reform methods that may not yet be appropriate to our circumstances?
This donor interest in improving Public Finance Management performance has led to immense pressure on countries to adopt new public management approaches. These have included (1) medium term expenditure frameworks (MTEF) often pushed to be implemented long before a country may have developed the capacity to make credible their annual budgets and even as developing partners themselves continue to struggle with their capability to disburse funds predictably in-year, more so as measured in a medium term perspective; or (2) the use of policy based budgeting such as program and activity based budgeting long before they have the institutional capacity to effectively coordinate programs, develop the fiscal space for meaningful policy consideration, or access the monitoring data to properly evaluate policy outcomes; or (3) the adoption of integrated financial management information systems (IFMIS) to manage expenditure which occurs across as many as thousands of spending units many of which still struggle with issues of staff retention, electricity supply or integration into a national financial administrative network. The challenges of managing at the level of spending units under an IFMIS implementation has led to a roll out strategy limited to treasuries (payment centres). Control over payments is often too late to impact on the accrual of expenditure arrears which can have important detrimental macroeconomic stability impacts; or (4) full accrual accounting even as financial reports based upon a cash accounting standard are not comprehensive, show signs of low data integrity and are issued late. A review of country experience across many developing countries who have adopted the new program management approaches in their Public Finance management reforms shows that these efforts have often not been successful by any reasonable measure.
The primary reason for this widespread Public Finance Management reform failure is often attributed to political economy considerations by developing partners – poor governance, high levels of corruption and the like. Of course that is part of the equation, but in contrast it is striking that there are cases of dramatic success of particular elements of Public Finance Management reform in such areas as debt management, certain aspects of revenue administration and public procurement in even what are considered the most corrupt developing countries. Is the political economy focus just another way of suggesting that the poor success record of many of these new public management approaches is solely the responsibility of the developing countries and has little to do with the immense influence that the donor community has had over in setting the Public Finance Management reform agenda?