We have just returned from a week in Senegal. Dave and I came along with me so that I could attend I workshop for capacity building of civil society, parliamentarians and the media in budget analysis and advocacy for the health of mother and child.

I hope I haven’t lost your interest already. 

Budget tracking may seem like a boring topic, but I find it so interesting.  For years now, countries across the globe have been saying that maternal and child health is one of their top priorities. Statements have been made, coalitions built, strategies have been developed. On the surface, it would seem as though a lot is happening. But when you look a little closer you find that despite all the rhetoric, little progress has been made in improving the health of mother and children, especially in the poorest countries in the world.

Ever since I have worked in this field,  every time we question why contraceptives are not available in the villages or why health centers are not staffed with qualified personnel, we almost always get the same answers: there’s no money, we don’t have the funding, and we can’t afford it.

A budget is the single best indicator of a country’s priorities.  It is the best way to tell whether a country is putting its money where its mouth is and whether or not it has taken steps towards fulfill the commitments that it has made to maternal and child health.

The three day workshop was attended by delegations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal.  Each country was represented by members of civil society organizations and the media, along with parliamentarians, and their ministries of finance and of health.

The countries represented in the workshop have budgets that rank among the least transparent in the world. Of the countries represented, Burkina Faso’s had the best transparency score  in the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey – a measly 23 out of a 100, Niger, with the least transparent budget scored a depressing 4/100, with zero meaningful opportunities for civil society to contribute  to the country’s budgeting process. The survey evaluates the transparency of a budget by looking at what information is made public and when, as well as who gets to contribute to the process and how often.

The aim of the workshop was to have members of these delegations first understand the important role that the budget plays in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH) and the financial costs of not investing in RMNCH. It also taught how good health policies are developed and costed, and provided options for increasing fiscal space – the money to fund these policies – within the existing budget.  A budget is public property, it represents the money that belongs to each and every citizen of a country and therefor, the public should have a genuine say in how the money is distributed and how is has been spent. This workshop provided participants with an outline of the steps that should take place in the budgeting process, and all of the opportunities in which civil society should be able to contribute. At the end, each of the delegations developed advocacy objectives and strategies to improve civil society’s contribution to the budgeting process in order to prioritize health.

A good friend of mine who works in finance once told me that talking about money scares people, that people often feel as though they don’t have enough knowledge to contribute and are too embarrassed to say so. That definitely explains how I have felt and I know some of the participants agreed. We were afraid that the workshop might be too long, too technical and hard to follow, but we could not have been more wrong. The participants lapped up every word on every slide, and were thrilled to be equipped with the knowledge of the role they can plan in ensuring that their country’s budget prioritizes maternal and child health.

The presentation on increasing fiscal space even got a standing ovation!

Ile de Gorée, Senegal
Ile de Gorée, Senegal
Ile de Gorée, Senegal
On a more personal note, attending a conference with my baby and husband was busy, to say the least, and stirred up a lot of feelings that I hadn't anticipated. When I returned to work at the beginning of April, I felt like I was struggling to be the parent that I wanted to be and struggling to do the job that I wanted to. I could no longer stay with the baby all day and I couldn't stay late at work either.  In many ways, the workshop only made these feelings worse.

Usually, when I attend a conference or workshop, I spend the coffee breaks networking with other agencies and donors, or helping out in some way. On this trip I spent my time running through the halls of the now-faded King Fahd Palace Hotel so that I could get back to the room to breastfeed. At the end of the day, rather than debriefing with other facilitators, I was stressing about getting back to Ben and Dave, who had taken a week off of his own work so that I could travel to Senegal. I felt like I was no just falling short at work and parenting but also at being a wife, and questioning if the trip had truly been worth it.   I worried about the precedent that I had set in my office: would other parents now be expected to travel when their babies are 4 months?  Would they be expected to foot the bill for their families to join, as I did?  Had I just done my colleagues a huge disservice? Then I started to beat myself up for being such an over-thinker: do I have to make all the right decisions all the time?  Does everything I do have to be perfectly feminist all the time? Why do I always second guess myself?

Am I the only one that does this, feeling guilty about feeling guilty?

Luckily, in the last days of the trip reminded me of another reason that I went to Senegal: I really do love traveling. After the conference ended, Dave, Ben and I went to Les Collines de Niassam, a beautiful eco-lodge three hours outside of Dakar, were we relaxed, bird watched, ate delicious food, went for a long walk to the salt wells, and took a boat ride, where we gorged ourselves on freshly picked oysters. It may not have answered any of my questions, but it sure was lovely. For now, it feels like it was the right decision to go.

Dave, relaxing on the balcony of our room at Niassam
Senegalese women harvest salt in Palmarin, Senegal

Salt wells in Palmarin 

 Benny came along for the ride.

A man cleaning his fields in Palmarin

Thomas, our boat guide and oyster-picker.
Freshly picked oysters
I think we had about 40 oysters each.

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