On the 9th of September 2016, Social Action organised a consultative meeting on open budgets. The forum which held at Aldgate Congress Hotel in Port Harcourt sought to bring together citizens and government officials to discuss ways of building trust and enhancing civic engagement in the budget process. It is part of a set of strategic interventions to deepen the participation of citizens in the budget process.At the meeting, members of Civil Society Organisations had the opportunity to make their contributions on the way forward for open budgets and civic engagement in Rivers state.
In a lead presentation Mr. Sebastian Kpalap on behalf of the open Budget cluster, took the participants through a history of civil society budget advocacy work in the Niger Delta. He enumerated the achievements from sustained demands for transparency and accountability by civil society actors and observed that while there have been some improvements in the disposition of government officials to engage citizens in the process there is still no clear cut framework for such engagements. He also used the opportunity to present an Open Budget Index Report recently developed by Social Action. According to the index, open budget practices is at a very low ebb in the Niger Delta.
In their separate contributions to the open budget question, participants at the forum expressed their opinions, shared their experiences and raised expectations on the way forward for more accountability in governance in the region. Mr Michael Gbarale of the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development CEHRD in his remarks called on government to make participation in the budgetary process more inclusive to enable citizens contribute to development. Commenting on the non-availability of the budget document in the public domain, Ms Iyingi Irimagha of Gender and Development Action GADA observed that in keeping with the objectives of their organisation to increase the participation of women in the decision making process some advocacy committees have been formed in some of the communities where they work. These committees are ready to engage government but they lack quality information like those contained in the budget to make informed engagements. She further said that open budgets would provide better opportunities for their engagement at various stages of the budget process.
In his response to the positions canvassed by some of the participants, the Executive Director of the Rivers state Bureau for public Private Partnership Hon. Nimi Walson-Jack reminded the participants that legislators are the actual representatives of the citizens and are saddled with the responsibility of articulating their needs. He encouraged the participants to set aside the blame being levelled at government for not providing a constitutional framework for civic engagement and take advantage of existing avenues for engagement at the various government Ministries and Departments. He promised to take the message of open budgets to the Rivers state Commissioner for Budget and Economic planning.