Panel Discussion about Gender Responsive Budgeting

Putting gender at the heart of national budgeting – why it matters for everyone and how to roll it out

Written by Poe Ei Phyu, Policy Advisor for Oxfam in Myanmar and Jasmine Burnley Director of Advocacy and Communications for Oxfam in Myanmar

At the heart of a democratic relationship between citizens and the state lies an accountable system of public spending. A country’s budget can be the most powerful tool a government has to move forward the rights of its people, yet in many countries, the annual budget process remains closed to the people that it is supposed to benefit. That’s why so many actors the world over call for participatory budgeting. The idea behind a participatory budget is that by asking people what their own budget priorities would be – as part of the budget design process that happens at national to local levels – governments will get a good sense of service delivery gaps and where they need to invest precious national resources. This is not enough alone but it can help to give governments a reality check about what spending priorities should be.

But over the years questions have emerged about who gets to speak out and express their preferences when participatory budgeting is done. As with many processes that take place in the public sphere, it is very often men that get the biggest say. And that’s why gender responsive budgeting – participatory budgeting which focuses especially on women and their preferences – is something that a growing number of civil society organisations are working on.

And bear in mind that gendered discriminations which prevent women from getting involved in participatory budgeting don’t just apply at the level of the community – budgets are not politically neutral at any level: what gets included in a budget is shaped not only by the people who decide the allocations but also the structures and histories that inform how those decisions are made. If a budget does not account for the different needs of women and men, it is ‘gender-blind’. More often than not, national budgets favour men and the groups, institutions and systems that are led by men.

Last year, Oxfam and a number of its partners and allies (Women’s Organisation Network, ActionAid Myanmar and Care) came together to conduct some exciting research into gender responsive budgeting in Myanmar. Hearing what women have to say about what the national budget in a country like Myanmar which is on the precipice of so much change should look like would be exciting enough. But what made this additionally innovative was that at the moment, people are not really consulted on the budget at all in Myanmar. Government spending is still highly centralised and few people have access to information on budgets – despite the recent publication of a citizen’s budget by the new government.

The research came up with some really interesting findings:

  1. The budgets for essential public services (education, health, social welfare) are still extremely limited - and this is clearly recognised as a problem by the women who took part in the research
  2. Community participation – especially for women –  in planning and budgeting processes from sub-national through national level is also very low
  3. Planning committees at the sub-national level are dominated by men because most representatives from the community are men
  4. Women are often unable to participate in the community meetings due to the burden of unpaid care work in the family – often, they are not even informed that the meetings are taking place
  5. There is a complete lack of mechanisms to help communities ensure that they are able (especially women) to participate in the planning and budgeting processes
  6. Although 60% of men stated that women and men felt the same about budget priorities, in reality over 75% of women thought that women and men perception’s on budget priorities would be different. They reported that as their lives and experiences are different therefore, their needs on the budgets are also likely to be different.

As well as these key findings, the four organisations working on this research put together a draft model for how the gender responsive budget could actually look if it were incorporated into the government’s annual budget cycle. See figure 1 below.

But that is not where the work stopped. After the research was released, Oxfam along with others decided to take the research and the gender responsive budgeting model out on a road trip – to the people that actually make decisions about the national budgets in Myanmar.

So far, this has involved sharing the gender responsive budgeting model and explaining how it could work in Myanmar’s governance structures to the Ministry of planning and finance, discussing how gender responsive budgeting model could be incorporated into the work of the Joint Public Accounts Committee, delivering training to state/region parliamentarians in four states and regions across Myanmar (Yangon, Sagaing, Mon and Kayah), and finally developing a training which is now being rolled out with civil society organisation leaders so that they too can work with power holders to incorporate the budget priorities of women into budget formulation processes – wherever this is possible.

This active research dissemination process has revealed some interesting insights into how power holders in Myanmar are grappling with the difficulties of formulating complex national budgets and how they view women’s priorities within this. A programme of support to the government of Myanmar to reform the public financial management system is encouraging the governments to put in place a better budget process overall, but from the discussions with ministries and MPs on gender responsive budgeting, it is clear that whilst a deeply participatory budget process is a long way off, many – especially MPs – are embracing the debate on participatory budgeting, including for women – and this is a positive signal that there is political will for progress in this area.

Oxfam’s governance programme in Myanmar seeks to build public and government/administration capacity to open up the budget process – and make it more effective. To learn more about Myanmar’s Social Accountability programme, read this.