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Delivering the Budget


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 12 December 2017 00:00


Budget 2018 has been passed with a two-thirds majority, giving it a stamp of approval that is reflected by the private sector. Now the Finance Ministry, together with the rest of the Government, has the massive challenge of implementing the Budget, which is likely to be made harder as 2018 is billed as an election year. Unfortunately previous track records are not encouraging.         

Budgets are notorious for being long, complicated and rambling, with little being accomplished at the end of the day. Budgets, when they are complicated, are also difficult to track, particularly in Sri Lanka where transparency at the ministerial and institutional level remains negligible.    

A review of proposals under Budget 2017 done by Verite Research showed that less than half of the 37 major proposals, amounting to Rs. 116,910 million in public funds covering 24 Government institutions, could be tracked by the public. 

The research, which covered policy implementation over the first six months of 2017, ran into repeated roadblocks as authorities refused to share information even after multiple Right to Information (RTI) applications had been filed. 

Even though the Government had earlier called on all ministries to publish updates of their tasks on respective websites for transparency, few have done so with key details of some of the most important proposals not before the public.   

Of the proposals tracked, 14% were removed and 32% were lagging behind schedule and only 3% or one proposal was on track and ahead of schedule. The 51% of proposals where no information could be obtained was worth Rs. 67 billion, according to the research. 

Many top ministries also fared badly on transparency. These included the Education, Law and Order and Defence ministries, even though the request for information from the latter had nothing to do with national security and focused only on the pensions of disabled war veterans. 

The National Policies and Economic Affairs Ministry, which is headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the Agriculture Ministry, which is held by Duminda Dissanayake, were also labelled “closed” or “obstructed” by the platform. 

What all this underscores is the need for the Budget to prioritise the most important economic and political agendas and then actually achieve them because a Budget is essentially the catalyst for a policy agenda. The Finance Minister has already acknowledged this need by establishing a Budget monitoring unit and pledging to disclose information in a timely manner but the amount of work that needs to be done is daunting.  

Sri Lanka, with its significant debt and governance issues, can no longer afford to have budgets that do not walk the talk. Key reforms, including State-Owned Enterprise restructuring, improving exports, improving imports and implementing pragmatic social welfare nets, need to be outlined in the Budget to give all stakeholders, including the private sector, a chance to base their planning on something solid. 

Achieving Budget proposals is also important because coalition governments are well-known for struggling to get all parties on the same page about what needs to be done. Policy stagnation seen after the Government came into power eventually overflowed into public impatience and anger. With a new Finance Minister and State Minister of Finance the public are once again hopeful of positive and timely outcomes. It is also a second change for the Government that must not be squandered.


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