Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Follow the Money.
It’s no secret that an important way to assess someone's priorities is to look at how they allocate their resources. This is true for individuals, but it applies to governments too.
Many lawyers are not numbers people, but we ought to be. By watching how governments spend specific dollars, we can more effectively identify the extent to which stated commitments to human rights, are, in fact, priorities. Being well-versed in financing can also help advocates influence how money is being spent.
Of course, budget processes are not often transparent. But that is changing, as the Transparency and Accountability Initiative has detailed. A human rights framework requires transparency, because it is critical for accountability. Transparency alone, however, does not make a budget process human rights-compliant. Human rights also call for governments, both national and local to foster meaningful participation of communities in decision-making:
The right to participate is not spelled out in any one treaty or covenant, but is drawn from a number of international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
In 2013, then U.N. Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdelena Sepulveda, issued a report detailing the contours of participation, focused on participation of individuals living in extreme poverty. She emphasizes that “To be in line with human rights obligations, participation should challenge existing power relations that restrict people’s agency and enable free, informed and meaningful input, with real influence over the final decision or outcome.” Her report also offers concrete strategies for ensuring basic human rights principles, such as dignity, non-discrimination, access, and empowerment. For one, placing a priority on creating circumstances in which marginalized or typically vulnerable populations can participate. Additionally, fostering access to information so that all community members can make informed choices, regardless of literacy, language or other factors.
Bringing a human rights framework to budgeting has the potential to be transformative. There are efforts underway to develop human rights based budgeting in the U.S. and abroad. In 2011, Mexico City enacted a law putting human rights budgeting in place. Within the U.S., the most notable action has been at the state level. In Vermont, the Legislature has declared that “the state budget should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity” and that spending and revenue should promote economic well-being and “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security, and a healthy environment.”
While not based in human rights principles, there is also a growing city level effort in the United States to infuse participation into spending through participatory budgeting (“PB”). Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Vallejo, CA, are all experimenting with versions of PB. (PB originated in Puerto Allegre, Brazil in the 1980’s and has been used in localities around the world – over 1,500 localities – according to the Participatory Budgeting Project). NESRI has discussed subnational examples, including from Canada and the UK, in a short briefing paper.
In my own hometown, New York City, participatory budgeting began in 2011. The way it works is that in each district that has PB, residents choose collectively how to spend $1 million of their City Council Member’s discretionary capital funds. Neighborhood assemblies develop project ideas and spearhead project proposals that are ultimately presented to the district members. Any resident of the district can participate, as long as they are 16 or older and have proof of residency in the district – moving closer to “one person, one vote” than typical elections.
Since 2011, the number of City Council Members who participate has tripled (up to 24 in 2015). And, the City Council is trumpeting this effort.
Of course, this type of budget participation only gets at a small slice of the pie, and the options and outcomes are not necessarily based on human rights principles. But, participatory budgeting is clearly a step toward more inclusive, transparent and accountable civic participation. It is also a signal that direct democracy is alive and well.