Monday, 11 January 2016

Budget Support in the Western Balkans: a catalyst to the EU?

“Aid modalities” to use the jargon, is a bit like men’s fashion. Rather like flared trousers and loudly coloured ties, they come around in fashion every so often. Same with the fashions in aid effectiveness.
Having sat on several national and OECD level talking shops, I now conventionally start with a quip of adding the negative…so aid effectiveness becomes ‘aid ineffectiveness’ which is often closer to the reality on the ground in recipient countries where despite well meaning declarations, foreign donors more often-than-not have their own peculiar pet ideas and vision.
One delicious example was when I came across a reasonably well designed and operational fiscal system in a particular transition economy and a certain Nordic donor insisted that its support in the area was conditional on the budget being gender based! Hmm, the average Public Finance Management expert may ask: what if budget programming is sound and based on a reasonable identification of needs and priorities?
… back to Aid (In) Effectiveness.
The EU’s aid budget is managed through its euracracy, the European Commission (EC). And in recent years there has been a marked shift to align its aid dollops through an increasing share of budget support operations or cash transfers to the national Treasury via generally its account at the central bank although they are now aimed to be 25% or so of the total aid pot.
Traditionally a tool favoured for developing and emerging nations, Budget Support has now found its way to the Aid menu for would-be accession countries of the EU’s periphery, including bits of the Western Balkans not already in the EU.
One of the interesting developments has been whether budget support operations meets the wider goals of development aid and in turn whether the tool is relevant for what is left of the Enlargement-seeking countries – relevant for either their broader development or for guiding and accelerating EU aspirations.
Leaving aside the outlier that is Turkey – it being recipient of a cool $4.8bn aid over 6 years from the EU over 2014-20 and a further $3.something bn commitments late in 2015 to Turkey “manage” Syrian refugees – the question has become focal for the Western Balkans – Albania and the 4 Yugo successor states not yet in the EU: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.
Picture a situation where anything up to 90% or more of aid flows are from the EU into a recipient country in the Western Balkans that is earmarked to be €1.6bn in 2015. Sounds a lot but if budget support takes about a small portion of €20-40m then this is small change for the Western Balkan budgets.
So can budget support – essentially cofinance for existing budget lines for line ministries – be conducive to reform in the Western Balkans (where reforms have stalled) particularly where convergence to EU norms is concerned?
Time will tell.
One thing is for sure – Budget Support for Sector Reform is a well-meaning approach relevant for development more generally and it does in principle meet the broader aims of national ownership by allowing recipient nations to use own systems and procedures. It means funds go through the national Treasury and in effect imply a potential boost to Aggregate Demand through a rise in government expenditure.
On the other hand, anyone who has worked in EM or in other developing countries will wonder if the use of often bent national procurement systems really does lead to meaningful impact of those hard earned (and argued in austerity-hit donor countries) transfers of Euros, pounds, dollars or any other currency.
In summary, Budget Support is not a panacea in aid delivery. It is a tool or modality and one amongst a family of tools that range from classical Technical Assistance from the private sector or from national administrations in the EU (twinning as it’s called) to continued use of EU or other donor procurement systems but where the beneficiary country or authority (such as the Road Fund or Railways or Border Control Management) is given the right to make a transparent selection based on verifiable criteria.
Budget Support does make Ministers of Finance and other key ministerial folk sit up and take notice because its pure cash rather than some woolly project where foreign experts eat up most of the sum from consultancy fees. And as such policy conditionality works if the programme is well designed. Equally if it is but a substitute for a better option such as a standard Supply Contract then its impact and value-for-money will be lower.
This in turn opens up perhaps the critical path for potential reform. Via the budget.
The share of government in Western Balkan economies remains relatively high and so fundamental reform in key sectors will be credible only if the piles of donor funded sector plans and fancy Medium-Term Expenditure Frameworks (MTEFs) are subject to genuine Public Finance Management through much improved budget programming, better expenditure management and improved financial accountability.
Having designed the one main General Budget Support package for Serbia in 2009-10  and a pilot Sector Budget Support in the Western Balkans in the last two years, I remain cautiously optimistic about the potential of the new modality as a conduit to more effective governance, rule of Law and government finances.
The latter three tick boxes toward the Copenhagen criteria that defined the initial basis of meeting the entry requirements to the join the EU.
That said, the Jedi Knights of the Acquis Communautaire may wonder if the Force is really with them if this does not lead to meaningful real convergence at the geek-level EU Chapters….from statistics to agriculture and veterinary control to financial control.
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