Government Spending Watch, a site that collates MDG spending, launches today. Guppi Bola and Rachel Bladon explain how this powerful tool will be critical in holding governments to account.

In the world of development, money answers many questions. If we’re interested in finding out how far we’ve come in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) or in what direction we should go for a post-2015 agenda, having the right numbers in place is paramount to moving forward.

This is what makes Government Spending Watch (GSW) so exciting. For the very first time we can answer how much money is being spent on development, who it’s coming from and where it is going. The data, compiled by Development Finance International and supported by Oxfam GB, shows how much 52 low- and lower-middle-income countries (LICs and LMICs) are spending on MDG-related initiatives.

With only 32 months to go until the MDGs are due to be met, this is the first chance for ordinary citizens in countries from Armenia to Zambia to see whether governments are keeping their promises and spending the amounts needed to fight poverty or reach the MDGs.

So, what does the data tell us?

The good news is that many developing countries are investing more in real terms than ever before, but this trend is slowly reversing. The vast majority of developing countries are spending much less than they have committed to, or much less than international organizations have estimated are needed to change lives.

Only one third… are meeting any education or health goals and less than 30% are hitting agriculture and WASH targets.

Only one third of countries are meeting any education or health goals and less than 30% are hitting agriculture and water and sanitation (WASH) targets. To top it off, falling aid commitments, low execution rates and low recurrent spending have combined to put a real threat to any existing progress. 

Of course there are gaps in this data, and it doesn’t tell us everything. GSW has been able to compile almost three-quarters of sector data for education and health, but only two-thirds for agriculture, half for social protection and environment, one third for water and sanitation and one fifth for primary education and gender. Below is a handy map that visualises where we’re at.

Global Spending Watch data availability map

What’s also important to remember is whilst the quantity of government spending is significant in progressing towards the MDGs; it’s the quality of that investment that is will really make the difference.

Investment in agriculture for example, needs to be focused on supporting small-scale farmers to improve the food security and livelihoods of those that need it most.

The most interesting part of developing GSW is how important a tool it will be in holding governments to account over MDG spending.

Local campaigns and advocacy can keep governments more accountable by institutionalising demand for, and supply of, this data. It will also make it easier for global, regional and national stakeholders to advocate and campaign for higher spending on the MDGs.

Data campaigning works

We’ve seen real change occur when the public have had the opportunity to fight using the right information in the right way.

In Sierra Leone for example, a decade of civil war left vital resources such as health care woefully underfunded. Life expectancy is just 48 years, and it is one of the most dangerous places in the world for a woman to give birth.

During 2012, a comprehensive budget tracking study analysed the quality and quantity of health and sanitation expenditure from national to local level. Oxfam led on the data collection for Freetown (the capital city, home to a third of the country’s population), talking to the Freetown City Council and District Health Management Team, as well as visiting health clinics and hospitals in the city. The study, and lobbying work with the Ministry of Finance, ensured that health was an issue high on the agenda in the run-up to the budget allocation for 2013.

10.5% of the Sierra Leone budget will be allocated to health and sanitation, a massive increase from the 7.4% allocated in 2012.

The success of the campaign became clear when the Sierra Leone government announced that 10.5% of the 2013 budget will be allocated to health and sanitation, a massive increase from the 7.4% allocated in 2012. This could mean an additional 7.4 billion Leones (US $1.7 million) allocated to free healthcare and an additional 1.5 billion Leones (US $340,000) for primary healthcare – which pays for the nurses, medical centres and equipment that is used by poor people for basic medical needs. These increases could pay the annual salary for an additional 560 midwives. 

What next?

Future development of the GSW project will extend this analysis to 34 more countries, and hopefully to other sectors too. Once we have captured as much of the data as possible, GSW will also be fundamental in asking the next important question; how well are we spending the money we have? Such questions are especially important when countries such as Niger are reaching their 10% GDP on agriculture commitment under the Maputo Declaration, yet there are still concerns it is not reaching the right areas.

Data and analysis is a key body of evidence for the debate about what will follow the MDGs, so GSW will be an important tool in helping to determine how post-MDG goals evolve.  We’re hoping the database will  progress rapidly to express new development goals as they are agreed in future international agreements. One thing is sure. With this data, ordinary citizens can ask their governments and donors tough questions, and press them to keep their promises and spend more to save lives.

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