The vast potential of gender responsive budgeting

Governance is more than being transparent, accountable and competent. It is about allocation of resources as well. Apart from issues of fairness, the use of limited resources has to be judged through efficacy; hence you need clear goals in your budgeting. One parameter that should be prioritised is gender; since policies cannot help but affect men and women differently.

PENANG'S AMBITION TO BE an international city has a number of implications and Penang’s Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng has acknowledged the need for, amongst other things, “a capable, clean and efficient civil service”, with a commitment to the development of human capital (emphasising excellence, creativity and innovation) and “a high degree of public-private partnership (PPP)” which will result in a “sustainable and balanced development”.

Further and related objectives include “social cohesion and inclusion which results in a shared society that allows democratic participation, respect for diversity and individual dignity, equal opportunity and prohibition of discrimination”. 1

To attain these goals, we need to have relevant policies devised and implemented; crucial to success is the allocation of resources towards achieving these goals. Given that money in the state is in relatively short supply, this has to be done efficiently and effectively, with as little waste as possible. It is the time of year when the budget cycle starts again in earnest, as government departments and agencies begin their bids for next year’s allocations.

The budget is arguably the state government’s most important policy tool, and the budgeting process can either encourage or inhibit the principles of good governance, including the principles of inclusion, social equity, transparency, accountability, efficiency and responsiveness.

At the recent three-day Workshop on Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) held in Penang from February 21–23, 2011 we heard how budget processes in Penang, Malaysia and the world have been undergoing some major changes as they move towards what is generically called performance budgeting. This makes the link between overall policy goals and budget planning much more overt, and includes the muchtouted Outcome Based Budgeting. It is a resultsoriented process that looks beyond the individual year and intertwines policy analysis, policy planning and budget decisions.

These updates were greeted with considerable excitement, since GRB holds the promise of encouraging and consolidating the sort of changes already being made, while also significantly adding to them. The Workshop pooled the experiences of some 40 people, including officers from the state government, the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), together with statisticians, researchers and NGO activists. Organised jointly by Penang-based NGOs, 3Gs (Gender Equality and Good Governance) and Women’s Development Research Centre (Kanita) in USM, and supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it looked at the principles, benefits, tools, and applicability of GRB in Penang. The conclusion was overwhelming – GRB should be given serious consideration by everyone involved in Penang’s planning, budgeting, data collection and research.

So what is GRB?

Simply put, GRB sets out to ensure that budget allocations take into account their different impacts on men and women, girls and boys. In so doing, it recognises that there are often major differences in situations, roles, opportunities, contributions and needs between men and women, which ought to be taken into account if Penang’s budget impact is to be as effective and efficient as possible. It does this in the wider context of Penang’s ambition to be inclusive, equitable, efficient, responsive and non-discriminatory. It also works in the further context of removing existing obstacles that may inhibit people reaching their full potential, including the removal of gender stereotyping so that every man and woman and child can benefit from opportunities to develop their individual talents, allowing them to exercise their preferred options and maximise their contribution to the development of our society, without fear or favour.

Every programme or project will have a differentiated gender impact, whether we consciously assess this or not.

GRB has become a part of the policy planning and budget process of over 60 countries round the world, an achievement it has attained in a relatively short time. The increasing popularity of gender budgeting testifies to the varied purposes it serves. Among other things, it has to been found that a genderresponsive budget:
• improves the allocation of resources to those who need them most;
• strengthens the linkages between economic and social policy outcomes;
• tracks public expenditure against gender and development policy commitments;
• encourages civil society participation in policy making and monitoring;
• helps the government to comply with national and international gender equality commitments (such as national gender policies and the United Nation’s [UN] Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women [Cedaw]); and
• contributes to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Participants of the Workshop on Gender Responsive Budgeting.

How do we implement GRB?

First, gender budgeting requires data that allows us to assess impacts on men and women. In other words, gender disaggregated data is a prerequisite. In asking for more comprehensive data collection, GRB does us a huge favour, since this is an area where there is considerable room for a general and overall improvement. We need to know much more clearly how our policies are being achieved, and whether our various budget allocations are really having the impact for which they were designed. The better and more inclusive our data, the better our ability to target programmes and design policies.

The process of data collection and policy analysis can also open up relationships and avenues for participation. GRB is clear that impact assessment will include “beneficiary assessment”, where the users of services and the “beneficiaries” of programmes are directly included in getting feedback and suggestions for adapting existing programmes and services. This would be combined with a number of other approaches to assessment and policy planning, including (as appropriate) expenditure tracking, data analysis, user interviews, focus groups, public feedback, participatory assessment and social policy research.

All this would help open up the relationship between the different stakeholders to significantly advance the “social cohesion and inclusion which results in a shared society that allows democratic participation, respect for diversity and individual dignity, equal opportunity and prohibition of discrimination”.

Including GRB in present budget processes of the state government, MPPP and MPSP is relatively straightforward, given the kind of performance budgeting targets and commitment to high standards of public service delivery of all three agencies. Each agency made very positive contributions to the Workshop. MPSP, incidentally, has qualified as one of only four government agencies in the whole of Malaysia to be considered for the top Innovation prize from the federal government; its expertise is also sought by other local authorities as a model for replication. Adding GRB to its approaches should fit well. But is it necessary?

One common response to the suggestion for GRB would seem to be that “we are already doing it. Our budgets do not discriminate.” But evidence from around the world indicates otherwise. In Malaysia, for example, a joint Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development/UNDP pilot GRB project which involved five separate federal ministries re-stated the fact that there is no such thing as a “gender neutral” budget. Every programme or project will have a differentiated gender impact, whether we consciously assess this or not. It is no coincidence that the Malaysian pilot project has actually resulted in three Treasury circulars encouraging all government agencies to adopt GRB as an integral part of their budget and planning process.

Right: Bukit Mertajam MP YB Chong Eng speaking at the threeday workshop. From left to right: Chong Eng; Prof Datin Rashidah Shuib, professor and director of the Women’s Development Research Centre (Kanita); Deputy Chief Minister II YB Prof Dr Ramasamy Palanisamy; and state assembly speaker Datuk Haji Abdul Halim Hussain.

Examining differentiated gender impact

At the Workshop, various examples of differentiated gender impacts were reported. For example, it was noted that subsidising public libraries may benefit females more than males (more females tend to use public libraries). If we are looking at how to encourage more teenage males to adopt good study habits and reverse the current trend where more females than men enrol for tertiary education, it is necessary to find other ways of reaching (young) men.

Another example is public sports facilities that may be used more by men than women. If we compare the data alongside statistics that demonstrate higher levels of obesity in women, then we can innovate health/sports programmes to reach women in particular. Indeed, the whole area of health expenditure (Penang’s out-of-pocket health expenditure is the highest in Malaysia, but who is spending how much on what?) would benefit from a gender responsive approach: for example, the feminisation of an increasingly ageing population has huge implications for housing, health and social cohesion and development, but has this been taken into consideration yet?

The issue of the “glass ceiling” was also raised at the Workshop, where various obstacles hindering the ability of women to attain positions of leadership were discussed. In each of the three agencies, the number of women in leadership positions fell below expectations. Straightforward discrimination may partly explain this, but there are also factors including the particular difficulties women face in terms of agreeing to relocate (husbands may not agree), and of combining household responsibilities with work. Other obstacles included a lack of childcare facilities within the state government and MPPP offices; as well as long working hours and long commutes that made scheduling particularly difficult for wives and mothers. These factors highlighted why it is necessary to ensure that both men and women have equal opportunity to realise their ambitions and potential. It should also be noted that many appointments within the civil service are made by the federal government and are beyond the control of the state.

Despite the obvious examples one participant remained sceptical, “Why should I adopt a gender approach when I could choose so many others – for example, an environment audit or assess policies in relation to impact on persons with disabilities (PWDs)?” The answer is simply if we are to break down discrimination in society, we need to open up all areas to better understanding, research and analysis. It is not a question of adopting a gender approach instead of an environmental approach or one targeted towards PWDs. It is a question of opening up our policy debate and our budget allocations and targeted outcomes to include as many stakeholders as possible.

Clearly there is much work to be done in terms of empowering people to commit to the principles of GRB and learning the tools (including how to ask the right questions; how to devise comprehensive data systems; how to analyse data; how to develop capacity for budget and policy assessment). GRB is a considerable asset in allowing us to consider each person’s participation in, and contribution to, economic and social development. Gender budget work also helps us to be more efficient, effective and equitable in utilising the state’s financial resources, not least by supporting and extending improvement in prioritisation, planning, project management, monitoring and impact assessment. There is much to be learned and taken from GRB, and a Task Force was set up at the Workshop to consider the next steps. If this is the first time you are reading about GRB in relation to planning in Penang, let’s hope it is not the last; GRB has great potential in helping Penang realise its dreams.

1 Taken from a speech given by Lim Guan Eng on December 18, 2010.

James Lochhead has been involved in many diff erent aspects of Penang life, political, cultural, social and otherwise, for the last 30 years.

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