The Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS) has been selected as this year’s winner of Atlas Network’s prestigious $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award for its “Better Budget for a Better Egypt” initiative, which helped bring about the country’s 25-point jump in the Open Budget Survey, fostered greater civic engagement, and occurred amidst the Egyptian government’s decision to cut all energy subsidies after 2019. The award, generously supported by the Templeton Religion Trust, was presented during Atlas Network's Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8 in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum.
“The hope that accompanied the Arab Spring in 2011 went unrealized because moderate voices in civil society went unheard,” said Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas Network. “How tremendously encouraging that ECPPS has answered the call and inspired the Egyptian government to move toward transparency and inclusiveness!”
After the dust settled following the Arab Spring, Egypt’s score fell dramatically on the Open Budget Index, which measures government transparency and citizen engagement in the budget-making process.
Seeking a more transparent and accountable state, the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies, developed a program to tackle three longstanding problems in Egypt’s budgeting process, which were: a lack of transparency; limited citizen inclusion in the budget-making process; and out-of-control energy subsidies, which accounted for a third of all government expenditures.
After four years working on the project partnering with various stakeholders and the Ministry of Finance to address each issue, Egypt’s score on the Open Budget Index increased 25 points from 16 to 41 in 2017, citizen participation in the budget exists for the first time, and the Egyptian government announced that it will cut all energy subsidies after 2019. Energy subsidies had constituted one of the most alarming expenditures in the budget. This became a widely discussed problem and, after the International Monetary Fund weighed in, the Egyptian government announced its decision to cut them.
At a time when budgeting reform in Egypt seemed politically impossible, ECPPS helped make it politically inevitable. And at the end of the day, this project means greater government transparency, better civic engagement, and more opportunities for civil society to have a voice in Egypt.
"In a politically challenging environment such as the one we're dealing with in Egypt, the most difficult challenge for a think tank is to find a way to drive positive change that is concrete, measurable and, above all, sustainable," said Ahmed Ragab, executive director of ECPPS. "This task is even harder if you have a classical liberal agenda. With 'Better Budget for a Better Egypt,’ ECPPS found the perfect balance between practical success, helping improve Egypt's score in the Open Budget Survey by 25 points up from a meager score of 16 points in 2015 to 41 points in 2017, and finding a space for classical liberal ideas in the public debate in Egypt, with near-daily visibility in the media and closer ties with lawmakers and opinion leaders.”
Identifying the problem and providing a solution
In late 2015, ECPPS developed a program to tackle the longstanding problems in Egypt’s budget, which required reforming energy subsidies, increasing transparency, and enabling citizen inclusion in the budget-making process.
ECPPS first identified groups that had access to the state and influence on public opinion and then conducted a multi-level action plan to create an environment in which the media, government ministries, and Parliament would consider ECPPS’ recommendations as the way forward when considering budget reform. It introduced the question, ‘What possibilities for change and reform exist, and how can they be introduced to both Egyptian society and policymakers in a sustainable manner?’ ECPPS navigated a tense atmosphere of apprehension between government and civil society with a measured approach that allowed it to get buy-in from all interested parties.
Two years into the project, the Ministry of Finance recognized the work of ECPPS and reached out to discuss possible changes to the budget process. ECPPS suggested the Open Budget Survey/Index as a way to benchmark progress in increasing transparency of the budget process. The Open Budget Index (OBI) uses 109 equally weighted indicators to measure budget transparency, and these indicators assess whether the central government of the country being measured makes eight key budget documents (one of them a “citizens budget”) available to the public online in a timely manner and whether these documents present budget information in a comprehensive and accessible way.
In the interim between the 2015 OBI and the 2017 OBI, ECPPS collaborated with the Ministry of Finance to meet deadlines for publishing budget information and also to transform data from the budget into an easily readable format for journalists, academics, and the public. Prior to ECPPS’ involvement on the project, the Egyptian government published only three of the eight key budget documents. ECPPS sought to increase the number of documents available and to increase the quality of the information presented within each. A major part of that work was ECPPS’ creation of the “Citizen Participation in the Budget Report," which measures citizens’ needs and budget item prioritization.
The report collected its data by interviewing and sampling individuals in 23 of Egypt’s 27 governorates (provinces) on what citizens felt needed more or less spending in the allocated budget — a colossal undertaking. The report also measured the level of knowledge people had about the state budget and the availability of services in these governorates. The International Budget Partnership (facilitator of the Open Budget Index) maintains that “transparency alone is insufficient for improving governance. Public participation in budgeting is vital to realize the positive outcomes associated with greater budget transparency.” ECPPS’ survey of the 23 governorates helped to create, for the first time in the country’s history, citizen participation in the budgeting process.
ECPPS provided the Ministry of Finance with its Citizen Participation report, which was available in time for the creation of a new budget, allowing for more citizen input. The survey of 23 governorates informed how to appeal to the people in a way they could understand. The Ministry of Finance’s engagement in many levels of the project gave more credibility and sustainability to ECPPS' work, especially given the often-tense nature of working in Egypt’s civil society.
The most recent Open Budget Survey was published in January 2018, and Egypt scored 41 (the global average score is 42). The International Budget Partnership credits Egypt’s increased availability of budget information since 2015 to three factors: 1) publishing the Executive’s Budget Proposal online in a timely manner, 2) increasing the information provided in the Enacted Budget, and 3) publishing the PreBudget Statement and Citizens Budget. ECPPS was heavily involved in obtaining those three outcomes.
ECPPS also prepared the “citizens’ budget,” a simplified version of the official budget, and published it widely. This first of its kind document prompted a thank you letter from the Ministry of Finance for ECPPS’ work to increase transparency and citizens’ inclusion.
About the Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2018 finalists:
Awarded since 2004, the Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and was presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8 in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum. ECPPS received a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists received $25,000 prizes. The other finalists for the 2018 Templeton Freedom Award were:
- The Buckeye Institute (Columbus, Ohio), “Increasing Safety, Liberty, and Justice: Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio”
- The Commonwealth Foundation (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), “A Titanic Shift: Pension Reform in Pennsylvania”
- Libertad y Progreso (Buenos Aires, Argentina), “Downsizing of Argentina’s Government”
- Lipa, Taxpayers Association (Zagreb, Croatia), “Campaign Against the Introduction of the Property Tax in Croatia”
- The Mercatus Center at George Mason University (Arlington, Virginia), “Unleashing Prosperity by Cutting State Regulations”