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Key South East Asian Countries Rank Low in Budget Transparency

A new survey indicates several South East Asian countries rank poorly in providing accessible and transparent information on their national budgets, raising fears of corruption in spending programs. Survey by the Washington-based International Budget Partnership says for many countries minor steps could be taken to improve transparency and accountability.

According to the Washington-based International Budget Partnership, most countries fall short in providing readily available information on budgets and spending programs.

Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, says access to budget documents is a major challenge. The IBP says in many countries the public is simply shut out from the budget formation process.

"The report with you right now gives a very sad story. About 80 per cent of the governments in 85 countries of the world are not transparent about their budget and financial processes," said Mangahas. "The battle that we have really as journalists and development advocates is that that means misuse, abuse, and corruption of public funds continue in small and large measures in many countries."

The International Budget Partnership works with civil organizations in developing countries to analyze, monitor and influence the government budget process. The organization says the aim is to ensure budgets respond to the needs of the poor as well as provide more transparency and accountability.

At the top of the Open Budget Index were the United Kingdom, South Africa, France, New Zealand and United States in providing extensive information in the budget process.

Among the lowest ranking were Angola, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In South East Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia received low rankings, placing among the group of countries that provide little or no information on national budgets.

"The Royal Government of Cambodia provides scant information to the public in terms of central government budget and financial activity during the fiscal year," said Kim Song Chea, of the non-government organization, Forum on Cambodia.

Song Chea says Cambodia faces a number of challenges. He says the country lacks funds to boost the auditing process and has few means to press the government to enact freedom of information laws.

Song Chea says foreign donors, key contributors to Cambodia's development budget, need to press the government on issues of accountability.

According to the report, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand also fell short in transparency and information on national budgets. Only Indonesia showed signs of progress towards reform over recent years.

Khairiah Makhtaruddin, a researcher with the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur, says the Malaysian government offers little chance for public participation in the budget process.

She says the government should improve the parliamentary review processes to raise levels of transparency.

Only Indonesia ranked better than 50 per cent in providing "significant information" to the public in its budget documents, with an improvement following reforms by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Finance at the national level.

The IBP called on governments to take urgent action to improve budget transparency and accountability, calling on international donors to add their weight along with civil society to publicize and demand explanations from governments to provide more information on spending programs.

The Washington-based organization recommended governments provide more timely information on the Internet and improve public accessibility to pre-budget documents. It also called for more debate and wider distribution of information through radio in countries where literacy rates are low.