Shahana Siddiqui and Kaniz Siddique
Published in the Daily Star Forum on 5 June 2011.
This piece explains gender budgeting and what it can do for women.
Whichever meeting we sit in, whatever show on the radio channels we tune into, whoever we speak to these days, be it for official or personal purposes, there is a language of gender empowerment/women’s advancement in everyone’s vocabulary. Some will talk about it with passion and conviction, others, jeeringly. Whichever way gender issues are presented and discussed, truth be told, the topic of gender has found a space in our society and the ways in which we do business. Sometimes we recognise that many use the terminologies as lipservice. But there have been leaps and bounds made for which slowly yet surely, the language of gender empowerment and equality has seeped into everyone from the national policymakers, to grassroots activists, to corporate moguls.
But this language of rights and equality did not come overnight or without struggle. Social movements have been integral in the fight for empowerment of women in Bangladesh. These movements have had immense impacts on the way women are perceived and treated in the larger societal context. What these movements have contributed to is the shift from seeing women as merely a vulnerable, victimised group to a critical mass who have agency and choices. Women are therefore both beneficiaries and contributors to their immediate communities and their national settings.
But how to ensure that women are in fact always included in the national policy formulation and implementation process? How to ensure that all that is demanded from the streets to international forums are in fact provided to those with the greatest need?
The answer is simple — financing what we are promised, budget for what we want.
Gender budgeting: What is it exactly?
Let’s start with the society as a whole: in a community there are heterogeneous groups of people who need different types of development to address different realities. These people are both contributors and beneficiaries of development but because they face different realities and obstacles, their benefits and abilities to contribute vary. Policies of the national government need to take into account these differences in people’s abilities so that national expenditure benefits the most vulnerable people.
It is no new news that women in Bangladesh, despite the progresses made, remain one of the most vulnerable groups. The government therefore needs to take into account the activities needed to overcome the special obstacles that women face. Activities to reduce gender based discrimination and obstacles immediately mean money needs to be spent by the government and other stakeholders.
How gender budgeting came about
Gender budgeting, the concept and its mechanisms, have been on the table since the time of the Beijing Platform in 1995. Activists and policymakers alike felt the need to monitor effectively how much was being spent on women-focused activities and what were the real results and impacts in their lives due to these initiatives. The homegrown Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) — Unlocking the Potential: National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction, finalised in 2005, provided the larger policy context for poverty and women focused and prioritised national planning and budgeting. Around the same time, the Medium Term Budgetary Framework (MTBF), a budgetary mechanism used by finance ministries, which is emerging in various countries for policy- and activity-led planning, was looming within the Ministry of Finance as a project.
If asked why at that very moment in time gender budgeting took off and was accepted by policymakers, the answer is simply: Sometimes it require the right people, the right political will and the right intention for everything to come together. With the PRSP in place, willingness on the part of the Ministry of Finance and the right set of practitioners available, gender budgeting through the application of MTBF found strong basis within the Government. What started as a test run of the MTBF with four ministries is now a standard practice in every ministry in Bangladesh.
MTBF: Engendering budget
The implementation of the MTBF was crucial to gender budgeting system. Through this budgetary framework, specific ministerial activities could be connected to the larger policy commitments with in-built results based monitoring tools that allow for policymakers to see what are the real changes in the lives of real women. Previously, budgets were carried out in an ad hoc/arbitrary manner. Much of a ministry’s budget depended on the negotiation skills of the respective minister and the officials. There was no direct connection to policy and/or no clear rationale of the budgets presented. MTBF changed the entire budgeting mechanism by introducing a performance oriented/result based budgetary system. This has now changed.
Around September of each year, the budget calendar starts with the Budget Circular 1 format going out to all the ministries. The ministries have to put in what are their respective mission/strategic objectives and how they plan on attaining them in terms of activities. Clearly they have to indicate what are the implications of these activities on poverty reduction and women’s advancement. It is an intellectual exercise for the mid-level policymakers to think through how their activities will affect the vulnerable population of their country. The activities-expenditures indicated must be backed by information. This is exactly where at the policy level the space for gender budgeting is created and implemented.
In short, what the MTBF does is link expenditure to policy. If you want to spend, you have to show why and how. If you want to spend, you have to specify how that money will affect the lives of the poor people and women. If you want to spend, you have to show how those vulnerable people, including women, will actually be better off after a set period of time. If you want to spend, you have to convince peers that this activity is truly needed and worth the while.
But the process does not stop there — the ministerial officials have to set up the projects and programmes in a gender disaggregated manner. There are two types of activities that ministries design — activities that specifically target women (female stipend programme, widow allowances, etc.) and those that are considered as non-gender-explicit activities. Benchmarks are set through the estimations and data. Even if it is rough estimation, the activity planning demands for some indications on how many women will benefit out of the direct and non-explicit programming. Based on the gender budgets presented through the MTBF, each ministry maps out their specific contribution to women’s development and hence funds are allocated accordingly.
Gender budgeting: What are the implications?
So what does gender budgeting actually do for the women of Bangladesh?
Since its application, every fiscal year, there has been an increase in the share of projects in the ministries impacting directly on poverty and women. Globally, Bangladesh’s gender budgeting system is considered to be a best practice since very few countries do such an intensive budgeting for women.
But having said that, there is the risk of this budgetary process becoming yet another mechanical, routine work for the ministerial officials without changing the mindsets of the bureaucrats and policymakers engaged in the exercise. While much has been spent on training bureaucrats on the MTBF process and how to design pro-poor and pro-women activities, there is no tangible way of counting for whether the implementers believe what they are doing and saying.
There is also something to be said about overall weak project designing. If the projects and their activities are weak or not thoroughly thought out, no matter the allocation, the implementation and the subsequent impacts will not be up to mark. The question therefore is whether gender issues are addressed from the very start of project formulation.
In the light of the recent developments of the National Women Development Policy 2011, there are 22 set goals which need to be translated into specific activities to achieve the targeted goals. These goals can be the starting point for upcoming project formulations by different ministries. To ensure higher quality project formulations, ministries can engage with civil society and NGOs working on gender issues to better identify gaps and obstacles. While gender budgeting falls mainly within the realm and obligations of the national Government, non-government institutions can align themselves with Government’s initiatives in order to ensure harmonised and coordinated activities to bring about the same goals — greater equality of women in Bangladesh.