Why Facebook can be as important as high-level meetings
Civil society budget advocacy often focuses on fund allocation, or tracking of budget implementation. In some national contexts, such as Nigeria, this overlooks the need for civil society action to influence the process of fund disbursements. Here, budgets are often inflated and thus some civil society organisations (CSOs) have found it relatively easy to push for fund allocations. Yet the release of these funds remains a critical challenge. In some Nigerian states, less than 30% of health budgets were disbursed in 2017.
The power of media and social media
Facing this situation, it’s important that civil society advocacy doesn’t focus only on fund allocations. In practice, budget allocations are relatively weak commitments. Through our evaluation of an advocacy project in Nigeria, we have found that civil society use of mass media and social media (such as Facebook) can be a key driving force for fund releases. Such advocacy has been particularly effective when it is bold and targeted. Some CSOs have used social media to call for the release of a particular budget amount, naming and shaming political leaders, and using photographs of malnourished children to vividly evidence the effects of withheld funds. In the Nigerian setting, where public finance decisions are highly covert, this brought the issue into the public domain - and in some cases the publicity went viral. This pulled a chord with politicians anxious about their public profile as the 2019 elections draw near.
In two states, the malnutrition funds had been approved for release for almost a year, yet the money had not materialised. This was despite ongoing advocacy by UNICEF, which used its status to convene high level meetings with the governors and used the power of its funding relationship. In both states, the ‘last resort’ strategy of civil society media campaigns achieved the release of the funds in less than a week. This highlights the power of bringing issues into the public domain.
This can be a risky strategy for civil society, though. While Nigeria now has more media freedom, many state governments continue to patrol its content. In one of the states, the CSOs and journalists involved in the advocacy received a warning from the state government. Despite this, they have resolved to repeat such action if the funds are not released in 2018: bold action in changing times.
Politicised fund releases
We also found that in the context of recession in Nigeria, the process of fund releases is becoming increasingly politicised. Our mapping of the budget disbursement process highlighted that each release involves an intricate process of approvals, across various ministries and agencies, and involving numerous government stakeholders. Each stakeholder had their own fund priorities, and in the context of recession they knew that only limited number of budgeted projects would actually be funded. In some cases, the file on the malnutrition funding had lay dormant for several months on one official’s desk. To keep the file moving through the system, UNICEF staff visited each bureaucrat and politician with power in the chain of approvals, to build their support for the programme.
In several states, disbursements that had been approved by the governor were piling up at the office of the accountant general. These approvals were not cash-backed, since the states were receiving only part of their budgeted funds from the Federation Account. In some states, the fund releases were promoted by ongoing advocacy to the accountant general, to get the disbursement of malnutrition funds prioritised above other requests. In other states, civil society mass media and social media were the key triggers for the fund release, because this brought the issue into the public domain.
Emma Jones, principal consultant, social development. Emma leads OPM expertise on voice, empowerment, and accountability.