Spend a bit of time with folks who want to see governments in low-income countries put more money into health, education, and other social sectors, and you’re bound to hear about “The Finance Minister.” A technocrat with vast powers to unilaterally shape budgets, this wise man (they are mostly male) has a passion for quantitative data, and a remarkable interest in the world his grandchildren will inherit.  He also seems to have a lot of time to read long reports.

In the face of the right analyses (many advocates seem quite certain), the Finance Minister can be convinced to pay for more vaccines, extend health services, improve education quality, and start programs to empower adolescent girls in rural areas. The right analyses, of course, must demonstrate that spending today will yield economic growth many, many years from now, as healthier and happier children grow into productive, employed adults, contributing to national income and paying taxes.

This Finance Minister is invoked as the audience for a lot of well-intentioned studies meant to be used in advocating for more money for a favorite sector or program.  

But does this Finance Minister actually exist?  I have my doubts.

I have my doubts, first, about the autonomy of ministers of finance.  Ministries of finance are a core agency within the executive branch of government; they are principally responsible for preparing budget requests that reflect the executive’s priorities and are subject to debate and eventual approval by a legislature.  In other words, they are performing a technical function, but within the hurly-burly of negotiation among politicians.  Arguments based on cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness may occasionally have salience, but more often give way before social choices, reflected in representatives’ votes, that do not accord with rational analysis.

Ministers of finance tend to be awfully busy solving problems with today’s arithmetic—how on earth to pay next year’s wage bill when it’s grown more rapidly than tax revenues, for instance.  They rarely have the luxury of considering the subtle calculus of investments and returns measured across decades. Beyond preparing budgets, ministries of finance are responsible for formulating and managing revenue policies and legislation, managing government borrowing on financial markets, transferring central grants to local government, regulating the financial sector, and representing the country within international financial institutions.  These are not small tasks; the agencies in question are often under-resourced; and there aren’t enough hours in the day to also think about how a bit more money for early childhood education today might, under a whole bunch of assumptions, bump the gross domestic product by a percent or so, 30 years from now.

If the hyper-rational, long-view minister of finance we’ve created in our minds doesn’t exist, maybe we should be working with the ones that really do, meeting them where they are.  Many of the things ministers of finance do care about and have control over matter a lot for social outcomes.  This is where advocates’ energy and brainpower could usefully be applied.

In proposing budget allocations, for example, finance ministries usually take into consideration whether the social ministries are good stewards of resources, and whether they can justify budget requests by demonstrating how additional resources are turning into better outcomes.  That has implications for the right advocacy approach.  It means, first, that finance ministries can accelerate the adoption of meaningful metrics by demanding them of social ministries.  Smart advocacy focused on how to measure performance of social sector programs can be tremendously powerful.  Just think what might happen if finance ministries were to ask for evidence that kids in primary school are actually learning.

Second, social sector ministries can find ways to feed finance ministers’ appetite for proof that money is turning into progress.  Health and education ministries will do better in inevitable budget showdowns if they are able to demonstrate that they are using the best available evidence to refine or reform their services, and evaluating in a transparent way as they go.  Nothing is a better prod for using data and evidence than knowing your budget depends on it.   

Beyond their role in trimming or fattening social sector ministry budgets, ministers of finance are also in a position to create or propose adjustments to the formulas used to allocate central funding to local governments. Given enormous disparities in resources and development outcomes within countries, revenue sharing tools can be hugely important in advancing equity aims.  Again, smart advocacy—combined with budget transparency—can create the conditions for better thinking about how tax revenues can be allocated fairly.

These ideas are just the start of thinking about how the work of finance ministers affects domestic funding levels for particular social priorities, and how social sector ministries spend those funds. In any particular country, a deep understanding of the real budget process, not some idealized one, helps shape the smartest technical analyses and advocacy messages.  If you care about better health, education, and wellbeing, it’s a great idea to talk with the finance minister. The trick is to make sure you’re talking to the actual person in the finance minister’s seat and not the one you’ve imagined.