Where openness and transparency are not synonymous  

Published: June 08, 2018 22:09:08 | Updated: June 10, 2018 22:14:14

The novelty is largely missing in the proposed budget for the incoming fiscal year (FY), 2018-19. Most bits of it -- whether its aggregate size or its resources mobilisation part by way of tinkering with rates, duties as well as in areas, expenditure outlay of both 'recurring' or 'developmental' in nature, the growth target of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) or, any broad fiscal policy-related issue -- have come out in the media, both print and electronic, well before its announcement. This has become the practice, rather than any exception, in recent years in particular. This is much unlike the case here, before, or, in other comparator countries and also most developed economies, as of now.

Now that the proposed Taka 4.65 trillion national budget for the forthcoming fiscal has been unfurled in parliament by Finance Minister (FM) A. M. A. Muhith, one finds not much of any major discrepancy, in its accounting frame, from what an otherwise 'well-seasoned' FM has earlier been stating about, perhaps too elaborately and too candidly, to the media. That is precisely the reason why the absence of novelty in the next fiscal's proposed budget, at the time of its formal disclosure, has been noted at the outset of this leader.

The budgetary accounting frame covers all sorts of revenues and other receipts (including domestic and external borrowings, loans, etc.) on the income side, on one hand, and all kinds of public spending for the 'upkeep and maintenance' of the government outfit, meeting debt servicing obligations, providing subventions and subsidies, keeping afloat the state-owned enterprises and entities irrespective of their respective financial state of affair, extending 'social safety nets' within the anticipated resources envelope and funding public investment programmes mainly through the Annual Development Programme (ADP), on the expenditure side, on the other.

In this context, lack of novelty has otherwise made the budget-presentation event, lacklustre, for practical purposes. Yet then, it will be unfair not to give Finance Minister Muhith the credit that he undeniably deserves for having the rare privilege, considering the cases with his counterparts elsewhere, of formally unveiling the 12th national budget -- ten during successive two-terms of the current government and two more in the early eighties. And he has been extra-ordinarily active in recent years, in an interrupted sequence, in engagement with various stake-holder groups, in what has come to be known as pre-budget consultations. And this time, the process has rather been of a very elongated nature, taking about four to five months' time in all. Those supportive of such engagement, might endorse its whole process as being demonstrative of 'openness'. This 'openness' might have some positive sides. But it must also be noted here that the 'news worthiness' of the annual budget-presentation event gets then diluted, to a considerable extent, much unlike the case in most other countries. With the 'meat' having already been made available to the media about the 'contents'--'bolts and nuts' -- of the proposed budget well ahead of its formal announcement, there is little left to unfurl on the occasion of its formal presentation, to their readers, viewers and listeners. Last-minute changes -- and those too of not quite substantive nature -- before the finalisation of the budget, do make here hardly any difference.

A momentous occasion like presentation of the national budget has thus tended, of late, to lose its 'gloss' and 'glamour'. Under such circumstances, 'attributes', mostly on subjective lines, will have the propensity to getting the precedence over 'substance'. This has made budget reporting on the day it is presented, a dull and drab job -- mostly 'cycling' and 'recycling' of facts and figures that had earlier been made public. And analysts and commentators do also find it not comfortable enough to vent their views anew on issues, topics and areas they had already done before. Repetitive verbiage on such counts can make unnecessary sound but carries no  new substance.

Meanwhile, it would be pertinent to note here that 'openness', as has been stated before, must not be misinterpreted as 'transparency'. 'Openness' is an important condition for ensuring 'transparency' and 'accountability' that constitute the bedrock of good governance. But this is certainly not the sole condition for promoting and ensuring transparency and accountability. Facts and figures -- and credible ones, of course - are critical for assessing the state of transparency and accountability. And there are also lots of grey areas that are involved in the process. In that context, the national budget must not be considered as merely an annual accounting framework.

Rather, the budget must be viewed as the only government-wide mechanism to control both the quality and direction of all public sector spending and to enhance particularly accountability within the executive branch of the government. From the perspectives of the tax-payers who mostly provide the wherewithal for funding the budget, the value that they or the country's citizens get from various government-supported or-funded programmes, services or authorities as well as the quality of such services, is an issue of import. Subjecting all government developments and agencies to regular critical scrutiny is, therefore, a dire need for the purpose. If this need is not fulfilled, it will not be an easy task to ensure tax compliance to the extent that this country needs to achieve, in view of its existing low tax-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio. The budget speech of the Financial Minister, as in every other recent year, does not shed any light on the issue about scrutiny of the works of government agencies/authorities/services, in both quantative and qualitative terms. That is still a grey area but it must not continue to remain so for long, if the nation's aspirations about becoming a mid-middle income country are to be met sooner than later.

The 166-page text of the FY2018-19 budget speech of the Finance Minister is unnecessarily a lengthy one to go through and get any intended new message, out of it. It is rather rigmarole, being, in essence, a rhapsody of successes, achievements, and performances that all concerned are well aware of -- and those too, not all without any question. The verbiage of the arsenal of superlatives could also have been avoided on a number of counts, as the FM has so carefully done while laying out the taxation policy and expenditure outlay for the next fiscal. That would have made the text of the speech easier to sift through, more carefully considering its intents and purposes. Meanwhile, a number of pertinent questions have been left unanswered, in the context of the goals, objectives, numbers, facts and figures of the proposed budget for the forthcoming fiscal. The marked shortfall in the outgoing fiscal's revenue collection  target, the lingering weaknesses of the government's capacity to implement and execute the investment programmes in the public sector, the emerging actual implementation shortfall even in terms of scaled-down revised allocations for the annual development programme etc., are some of such questions. There should be full and substantive debate on these issues while discussing the supplementary budget for the outgoing fiscal. If such problems continue to drag on, the proposed budget for the next fiscal would leave some good reasons for many to questions its 'realism' or 'pragmatism'.

There are also many other areas of proximate concern that the proposed budget has taken only a perfunctioning note. Certainly these issues are of consequence, deserving more serious attention. These relate to the huge burden of non-performing loans (NPLs) and other governance-related problems in the country's financial sector, the long-lingering uncanny situation in the capital market, the growing current account imbalance at a time when export and remittance growth rates have been taming, the volatility of foreign exchange market, looming inflationary threat in tandem with the surge of oil and commodity prices in the global market, the possible disruptions to the multilateral global trading pattern etc. Disconcerting developments on all such fronts will have wide-ranging unsettling effects. In this context, it is imperative to consider the need for providing some budgetary cushions, as far as practicable, to help address any possible adverse shock, related to such issues.


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