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Open budgeting and contracting as trust-building vehicles in the time of COVID-19

Volunteers met with their community to provide them feedback about the results of health facilities monitoring in Jalalabad in April 2020. Photo credit: Integrity Watch

Afghanistan is juggling multiple threats, including insecurity and political uncertainty after the 2019 elections and corruption amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As an aid-dependent country, Afghanistan has to raise funds to meet not only the growing demand for health services and equipment, it also has to feed a growing number of people who were already living under the poverty line. 

However, both donor and public trust are very low. The prevalence of corruption makes it very difficult for the Afghan Government to raise the funds needed and to spend the resources in a satisfactory manner. There are already allegations of waste, mismanagement and corruption in handling the COVID-19 situation, including personal protection equipment and materials purchased at exorbitant rates, the supply of substandard hand sanitizers and other goods, and a lack of access to personal protection equipment in many of the hospitals and health centers we have surveyed. 

Nevertheless, it is not a completely hopeless situation. The government can take certain measures to address the trust deficit among donors and the public as they raise, allocate, and spend the funds needed to tackle COVID-19. Open budgeting and open contracting (including transparency and public participation) could greatly assist the government to overcome the situation.

According to the results of the most recent Open Budget Survey, Afghanistan only provides limited budget information to its citizens. The country‘s overall budget transparency score is 50 out of 100, with the public participation score being 15 out of 100 and the oversight score 31 out of 100. While the scores did not improve in the last two years, there are many low-hanging fruits the Afghan Government can pick to increase budget transparency. This includes publishing budget documents in a timely manner, such as the pre-budget statement which the government produced last year but did not publish on time. In addition, providing more details in budget documents and reports and allowing civil society and the public to participate in the budget process could turn the budgeting process into a trust-building vehicle. 

These reforms can go hand in hand with fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. Since the government is planning to amend this year’s budget in response, it should publish the proposed amendments before they are finalized to enable citizens and civil society groups to engage in a meaningful discussion with the government. The government should gather inputs from civil society and other stakeholders for these amendments, especially regarding the health sector because improving the health system is a top priority at the moment. 

The information generated by independent sources, such as civil society, should be used to prioritize spending in the health sector. For instance, data from Integrity Watch’s study to assess the quality of health services in more than 50 hospitals, a survey of 41 health centers, and data collected through our community-based monitoring of 170 health centers could be used in the allocation of funds based on the needs identified through these studies. In addition, data generated through programs such as the Citizens Charter by the Afghan Government partners and the Community-Based Monitoring of health centers by Integrity Watch, which ensures public participation through monitoring of health services, could be used to allocate resources based on publicly identified needs in specific health centers. 

Afghanistan has made great strides in improving transparency around public procurement and how the budget is spent. However, there are still many steps that need to be taken, such as initiating e-procurement and improving the publication of contract data based on the Open Contracting Data Standard. More specifically to the COVID-19 situation, transparency and accountability around emergency procurement have to increase, taking into account civil society recommendations around this issue. The government should take the following actions:

We hope that these actions will help connect the budget process and the procurement with the issues that people are facing at the grassroots level.