How can human rights influence national budgets?

All rights can have budgetary implications. To this extent, national budgets have a significant and direct bearing on which human rights are realized and for whom. Budget analysis is a critical tool for monitoring gaps between policies and action, for ensuring the progressive realization of human rights, for advocating alternative policy choices and prioritization, and ultimately for strengthening the accountability of duty-bearers for the fulfilment of their obligations.

The budget can be understood as the outcome of systems and relationships through which the varying needs and desires of a nation are heard, prioritized and funded. The choices made by Governments as to how money is collected and distributed—and which rights are realized and for whom—are not value-free or politically neutral.

A rights-based approach to the budget demands that such choices be made on the basis of transparency, accountability, non-discrimination and participation. These principles should be applied at all levels of the budgetary process, from the drafting stage, which should be linked to the national development plans made through broad consultation, through approval by parliament, which in turn must have proper amendment powers and time for a thorough evaluation of proposals, implementation and monitoring.

While budget debates are overwhelming political ones, the substantive content of human rights standards themselves can furnish guidance to policymakers and legislators in weighing competing demands on limited resources, helping to ensure, for example, that:

  • Primary education is free for all;
  • Budget allocations are prioritized towards the most marginalized or discriminated against;
  • Provision is made for essential minimal levels for all rights;
  • There is progressive improvement in human rights realization; and
  • Particular rights are not deliberately realized at the cost of others (for example, that health programmes are not compromised by a disproportionate focus on security or debt servicing).


Example:  Increasing transparency and social spending in public budgets in Ecuador

During the late 1990s Ecuador experienced a serious macroeconomic crisis, which resulted in sharply decreased spending on social programmes. Poverty rates doubled between 1998 and 1999, and spending on health and education dropped by around 25 per cent. Concerned at these cuts, which were especially devastating for Ecuador’s poorest and most vulnerable families, civil society organizations with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) began to analyse the national budget—working with data from the Ministry of Finance and Economy and through a team of respected economists.

The objective of this exercise was to help legislators and the public understand how the budget functions and what priorities it reflects. The goal was to encourage the creation of more equitable public policies based on a consensus regarding society’s obligation to fulfil the human rights of all its members and to alter spending priorities.

The budget analysis revealed that spending on social programmes was plummeting. For example, in 1999 investment in health dropped from US$ 198 million to US$ 96 million. Spending on social sectors was disproportionately low compared to allocations for debt repayment and other non-social sectors. In addition, certain regions—particularly those with a majority indigenous population—were not getting an equitable share of social benefits.


Over the past four years a broad cross section of social groups, with the support of UNICEF, and the executive and legislative branches of government have collaborated to sharpen budget analysis and increase social spending on poor and vulnerable groups. Social spending grew to 23.2 per cent of Ecuador’s budget and the issue of public spending was subject to widespread, participatory national debate. It was openly discussed in the media and the legislature, and by the private sector and Ecuador’s active indigenous and labour movements. Public discussion has also focused on how to sustain increased social spending, examining the impact of the foreign debt and heavy reliance on income from oil exports, and overcoming inequities in the national tax structure.

Ecuador’s political leadership has worked with civil society to strengthen a national monitoring system—the Integrated System of Social Indicators of Ecuador (SIISE)—to track progress in social investment both nationally and by region.  The programme led to increased government transparency and accountability, investment in social services, participation by all people in decisions that affect them, as well as access to information, and a more efficient and effective public sector.

Lessons learned

Messages are much more likely to produce change if they are backed up by data and accompanied by realistic suggestions about how change can be accomplished. For example, by focusing on the inequalities inherent in Ecuador’s tax structure, the economic team was able to demonstrate where the funds needed for social programmes might be obtained. Government and society alike perceived that priorities could be shifted to benefit society as a whole.


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