Learning with SPARK is an innovative action learning partnership between the Institute of Development Studies, the Accountability Research Center and the International Budget Partnership (IBP). It aims to generate knowledge from a significant new programme run by the IBP – called SPARK (Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge) – through accompanied learning and reflection on actions to increase citizen’s influence on how public money is spent in seven different countries.
In recent years, many development actors have placed a focus on the transparency of public budgets and the inclusivity of financial decision-making across the world. It is hoped that acting on these issues creates opportunities for greater civic participation in governance and public spending and lays the ground for more accountable and responsive government. However there is increasing evidence that transparency alone is not enough to generate citizen action, and that state-led participatory budgeting can too easily be co-opted or restricted to a small range of local decisions or discretionary resources.
The International Budget Partnership has been at the forefront of learning in the field of fiscal transparency, and in mobilising organised civic groups and communities to scrutinise government budgeting and spending for several years. This contribution to learning continues through a new programme that started in 2019 – SPARK. SPARK is exploring how citizens who are already mobilised around real-life service delivery issues can be supported to link those problems with the aspects of fiscal governance and power dynamics that drive them. It assumes that tackling ongoing causes of exclusion and marginalisation centrally involves the collective agency of marginalised groups themselves. However, to complement this collective action, SPARK will support building of broader coalitions, navigating complex sets of accountability relationships, and challenging norms and narratives that deprioritise service delivery to the poor and socially excluded.
SPARK is working in seven countries to test out this new approach: Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa. IDS has designed the Learning with SPARK programme to maximise the learning from this. The programme is centred on action research relationships between lead researchers in each country and SPARK country teams and partners in grassroots groups and campaigns. Country action research leads are providing analysis and insights to inform programme strategies, and working alongside IBP staff and partner organisations as these strategies are delivered, supporting reflection on what actions have contributed to what changes, and what is being learnt through the practice about the barriers to citizen involvement in fiscal governance. A small international team supports these country researchers and the IBP team to bring together the learning from across the different countries, as well as providing inputs and updates from the wider field of study to stimulate and inform country-level actions.
By taking an action research approach alongside this innovative programme IDS aims to both help embed learning cycles and programme adaptation, but also work with IBP to generate wider learning for the sector about approaches to engaging marginalised groups to improve public spending.