May 22, 2007

People’s Budget Campaign: Lessons and Challenges

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 4:47 pm

The Growth, Employment and Redistribution: A Macroeconomic Strategy (GEAR) heralded a significant shift in the approach of the first democratic government in South Africa. GEAR argued for a set of orthodox economic prescriptions, which had the support of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These policies included reducing the budget deficit, trade liberalisation and privatisation. Progressive civil society argued that the GEAR strategy represented a ‘home grown structural adjustment programme’. In its defence government argued that GEAR was needed to both avoid a debt trap, and would lead to longer period of economic growth and employment creation. Moreover, they argued that GEAR was the only alternative.

The People’s Budget Campaign was initiated in 1999, three years after the GEAR strategy was announced. Drawing on a process of mobilisation through the Poverty Hearings, the anti-GEAR stance and struggles in unions, as well as disappointment due to parliament being unable to amend budgets, the need for a progressive alternative became more urgent. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, South African Council of Churches and South African NGO Coalition came together to develop an alternative focussing on the budget.

The start of the People’s Budget Campaign was rocky. The campaign had no financial resources; the prospect of drafting an alternative was daunting, and most importantly, the policy positions of the campaign would be scrutinised by government and business. During the 2000/1 – barely five months after the campaign was launched – the People’s Budget Campaign produced its first alternative proposals to the budget. The publication – with the benefit of hindsight – represented both an innovative approach focussed on alternatives, but also inspired leadership from partners in the coalition. The research going into the publication draws on work happening across civil society and from academic institutions. In a sense, the first People’s Budget Campaign proposals provided a space for progressive researcher to have their research included in a comprehensive strategy.

Nine years later, the People’s Budget Campaign has had notable successes, but still faces significant challenges.


The People’s Budget Coalition’s impact on policy is difficult to measure. After all, the PBC is part of a broader family of progressive organisations striving for social and economic justice. Nonetheless, there have been important changes in government policy on the very issues which the PBC has advocated. Box 1 drawn from the 2008/9 proposals from the PBC summarises these issues.

Box 1: Impacts on policy

Major Proposals from People’s Budget Campaign Progress
Expansionary fiscal policy Since 2000, there has been a modest increase in the budget. Significantly, the results since 2000 substantiate the assumptions of our macroeconomic model developed by EPRI. We are however concerned that there is a projected surplus for the 2008/9 financial year.
Increasing tax: GDP ratio The MTBPS indicates that the Tax: GDP ratio will increase
Infrastructure investment The PBC called for significant resources for new infrastructure in 1999. The investments in water, electricity, transport and other infrastructure services begin to meet these objectives.
Increase in the education budget The PBC has called for a 3% real increase in the national education budget. Government has increased the education budget in recent years.
Land The increases for restitution are good, and broadly inline with suggested spending by the PBC. Land redistribution however falls significantly behind our projections for government to meet its modest goals of halving poverty and inequality.
Housing The strategic shift in policy towards integrated human settlements is enthusiastically supported by the PBC. However, low-income housing remains under funded in terms of realising the strategic shifts.
HIV/Aids The PBC has called for an integrated treatment and prevention plan and endorsed the proposals from the TAC. The recommitment of government and civil society to reaching a comprehensive treatment and prevention plan is eagerly anticipated by the PBC.
Expansion of social security Increasing access to the child support grant, moderate expansion of the Unemployment Insurance Fund coverage are important starts in extending social security to all South Africans.

Underlying these shifts in policy – which remain incomplete and contested – has been the growing levels of participation amongst different coalitions. In particular, the PBC has relied heavily on the Treatment Action Campaign and the BIG Coalition to develop its proposals on HIV/Aids and social security respectively. Less institutionalised links with the social movements have proven extremely important in shaping demands on free basic services. In important senses, the cross membership of members of the PBC in a wider set of coalitions has been the central and most important process towards building a multi-faceted process, of struggling for economic and social justice in South Africa.

The PBC has been effective in utilising the media to project its views. This is evidenced in dedicated morning news programmes on the PBC, and significant reporting in the media.


Taken together, fiscal policy still represents a modest redistributive instrument in South Africa. The PBC proposals on social security, land, and housing; as well as the proposals for increased spending could provide a significantly more redistributive stance aimed at a more equal society, and a society that is willing to tackle structural poverty. Thus, despite gains in several areas, a qualitative leap towards an effective and sustainable redistribution of resources in South Africa has not occurred.

The PBC aimed to have a strong advocacy and campaigning structure. The PBC however has not been able to effectively undertake mass mobilisation on issues surrounding the budget. Instead, and perhaps a proxy, the demands of the PBC have been taken up in COSATU Jobs and Poverty Campaign, anti-privatisation strikes and other campaigns. Tactically, it might be argued that organising on issues on the budget are unlikely to yield mass protest, due to the technical nature of the budgeting process.

Another challenge that remains is building economic literacy amongst civil society organisations. The PBC has undertaken many training programmes in attempting to widen analytical skills on the budget. However, the assumption that a cadre of civil society activist focussed on the budget would emerge has proven false. Mostly, this is due to the high turnover of staff in civil society organisation.


The PBC has played a role in developing alternatives in civil society, and indicated that a more redistributive stance from government is both possible and desirable in as highly unequal a society as South Africa. The question today is whether the model of the PBC still represents the most effective way to advance a redistributive agenda. The PBC has itself argued that a wider anti-poverty coalition that brings together the widest grouping of progressive organisations. This is an important recognition that challenging the structures of power that perpetuate poverty and inequality in our society, requires the rebuilding of strength in civil society. The time is right for an anti-poverty coalition that brings together all progressive organisations. Such a coalition would not only strengthen the work of existing campaigns, such as the Basic Income Grant and the People’s Budget Campaign, but also take the fight, much more formidably, to capital. Building an anti-poverty coalition gives practical expression to the ideal enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

* Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen is an independent policy analyst, currently undertaking research on public sector employment at the Employment, Growth and Development Initiative (EGDI) at the Human Sciences Research Council. He served as the head of secretariat for the People’s Budget Campaign from inception till 2006, as part of his responsibilities at the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI).

1 Comment »

  1. […] – 3 poems · Review of State Institutions Supporting Constitutional Democracy – comments by POWA · More than food for stomach but food for thought as well, by Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · Assessment of NPO ACT – January 2005 · Putting civil society on the […]

    Pingback by Contents of Theorising Practice, May 2007 issue « newritings — June 11, 2007 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

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