The author is a program assistant at CEDR – Centre for Education, Documentation and Research at HOPS – Healthy Options Project Skopje. He has a Master’s degree in Ethnology and Anthropology and long research experience with different socially marginalized groups/communities, particularly people who use drugs.
Budget monitoring and dealing with institutional barriers in Macedonia
Budget monitoring can be a beneficial tool not only to access public information, but also to prompt public institutions to greater accountability and transparency. Of course, this is not so feasible in a country like Macedonia, despite the separate Law on Free Access to Public Information. The positive aspect in these circumstances is that the process itself reveals institutional weakness, which on the other hand creates the opportunity for developing new communication and cooperation strategies with the institutions.
HOPS – Healthy Options Project Skopje in 2014 decided to carry out budget monitoring in order to examine the possibility for financing the harm reduction programs in Macedonia from the state budget of the country. Now, halfway through 2016, these programs are still being funded from finances provided by the Global Fund to Fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Funding from the Global Fund stops in December 2016, however, in 2014 there were still no announcements that the obligation for financing these programs would be assumed from the Budget of the Republic of Macedonia. In fact, the future financing of these programs in Macedonia remains uncertain, that, however, is not the topic of this discussion.
Subject of this monitoring were the budgets of the: 1. Program for health protection of people with dependence disorders in the Republic of Macedonia, 2. Program for protection of the population against HIV/AIDS and 3. Program for social care – Day centres and shelters for extra-institutional social protection. We sent requests for free access to public information, pursuant the Law and past experiences, to all institutions in charge of planning and implementation of the three abovementioned programs. Since every question was sent as a separate letter in the form of business reply mail, the total number of letters dispatched was 500. The questions consisted of requests for insight into financial documents of public nature: bank statements, accounting cards and invoices. We aimed towards short and clear requests, written in a language comprehensible for the institutional employees. And this is the interesting part.
We were engaged in lengthy and painstaking correspondence and were the recipients of replies that revealed the institutional weaknesses. Initially, the institutions attempted to avoid the obligation of having to respond, claiming they did not have at their disposal the data we asked for. After we further referred to their obligation to maintain the data and make it available to the public, they offered the excuse that this process required too much effort when they were already overwhelmed with ongoing responsibilities. In order to receive the required data we had to gain the support from the Commission for Protection of the Right to Free Access to Public Information. The telephone conversations and the direct meetings were the most intriguing; they in fact revealed the institutional weaknesses.
The official correspondence with the institutions disclosed the way publically funded organs actually conduct their activities. For instance, in response to most of the separate written questions we received a single letter which seldom contained a reply to the questions it claimed to answer. This action disregards the rules for official correspondence and testifies to the professional negligence on the institutions’ part, particularly since they insisted on this type of correspondence. The content itself revealed the (in)competence of the officials and it further confirmed the dysfunctional human resource policy within the institutions.
The direct communication we engaged in confirmed previous testimonies, however we also happened to be the beneficiaries of an abundance of unexpected data. Although far from our subject of monitoring, we perceived that many institutions lacked proper allocation of competences. The officials in many institutions were unable to comprehend the requests even though all of them were in the context of their job description. Most of them expressed reluctance to respond, while certain individuals did not hesitate to express their aversion towards civic organizations and their obligations pursuant the Law on Free Access to Public Information. In a broader context, the exuberant experiences testify to the damage caused by nepotism and cronyism that have been undermining the efficiency of Macedonian institutions for years.
Finally, after an extensive and laboured process, we managed to gather sufficient data, although incomplete, in order to gain clear insight in the budgets of the monitored programs. The monitoring findings aided the current efforts for representation, made by HOPS and other organizations, and in 2016, the Ministry of Health of Macedonia designated additional € 30.000 for the Program for Protection of the Population against HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, this amount, even if portioned exclusively for harm reduction programs amounts to less than 5% from the required finances. The budget monitoring illustrated the difficulty in the struggle to fund harm reduction programs from the budgets of these three programs. Hence, we initiated a process for broader representation. However, despite our enthusiasm and dedication, the current social-political circumstances leaves little hope for timely solution of the financial sustainability of the harm reduction programs, at least not from the Budget of the Republic of Macedonia. Nevertheless, the budget monitoring improved the communication with state institutions and led to recognizing the advantages of the right to access public information and other activities.
Originally published in COPASAH Communiqué.