The South African Budget has largely served children well since the dawn of democracy. While access to services that benefit children has improved over the past 24 years, the remaining challenges involve expanding the coverage of services for the most marginalised children who have not yet benefitted from access to critical services whilst still responding to the goal of improving the quality of public services for all children. Both these elements are critical to the realisation of the Constitutional rights of all children in South Africa
How well does Budget 2019 do in responding to the twin goals of improving access to those who have been left behind and improving the overall quality of services? A key indicator from UNICEF’s perspective is the share of the budget devoted to programmes and services that benefit children directly. In this respect, Budget 2019 fares well. Spending on basic education, health and social protection (including social assistance) represent more than 40 per cent of total government spending and is undoubtedly a sizeable investment in promoting children’s rights. The government has maintained these historical levels of spending, although the medium-term growth for these allocations lag behind the overall growth rate of government expenditure.
Social grants for children have been adjusted for the effects of inflation and the Child Support Grant and the Care Dependency Grant grows by 2.3 per cent and 3.1 per cent on average respectively. Due to changes in policies, the Foster Child Grant declines by 5.8 per cent on average over the same period as plans are put into place to phase-in the proposed extended Child Support Grant.
In basic education, UNICEF is encouraged that the school infrastructure backlogs grant is being increased by R2.9 billion over the medium term, while the health capacitation grant, intended to boost personnel capacity in the sector, received an additional R2.8 billion over the medium term (2019 to 2021). An additional positive development is that children’s access to clean water, sanitation and energy is supported by the robust growth in the Community Development portfolio, which is expected to grow by almost 4 per cent on average over the medium-term.
Budget 2019 also sets aside additional resources to assist provinces in improving the uptake on conditional grants, which involve the Substance Abuse Treatment Grant, the Social Work Employment Grant, and the community outreach part of the HIV, TB and Malaria Grant. UNICEF is further encouraged that children’s access to services is boosted in an indirect manner through the additional allocations to the South African Post Office (R1.5 billion over the medium term). The Post Office is responsible for ensuring that grants reach intended beneficiaries and the additional investment will hopefully increase children and their families’ access to life-saving social grants.
While these access-enhancing initiatives are welcomed, the pressures in Budget 2019 also negatively affect further extension of equitable access to vital services for children. Reductions to the budget of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) may have a negative bearing on children’s ability to get to schools or access health clinics, which are often located far away from their homes. According to analyses done by the Children’s Institute, one-fifth (or 20%) of children travel more than 30 minutes to reach their preferred health facility.
Furthermore, the delay in implementing the extended Child Support Grant has resulted in R1 billion being removed from this initiative, which will hamper efforts to support families that take on additional burdens of child care. Similarly, while efforts at managing the government’s wage bill are laudable, the proposal to curtail spending on personnel-which grows by 1.4 per cent on average-should be carefully reviewed because of the centrality of competent personnel in providing quality basic education, social development and health programmes.
Pointing out how Budget 2019 supports improvement in the quality of services is more difficult. Allocations to the Post-School Education and Training programmes (including technical and vocational colleges) have been consistently above the growth rate of overall government spending over the last four years. These programmes serve university students as well as children between the ages of 15 and 18 and are projected to grow by almost 4 per cent on average over the medium term. Recent reports from the Department of Higher Education and Training indicate that certification rates have improved across most of the qualifications in the technical and vocational sector. Furthermore, to improve quality overall, a decision was taken to stabilise enrolment at each college, whilst improving the funding available to colleges.
Quality enhancements in the basic education sector are focused on the Early Grade Reading intervention. UNICEF has supported the government to evaluate approaches that produce the best results for children. The focus now is on reducing the costs of the effective interventions without compromising on quality. The additional allocations in health programmes for the capacitation grant are welcome and should support quality improvements. While the Child Support Grant has kept pace with inflation, children’s rights advocates are concerned that the allocation is below the national food poverty line, thus risking exacerbating existing nutritional challenges, especially stunting.
However, the absence of investment in quality improvement efforts in other sectors that serve children is concerning. For example, while the financial reductions in the rail commuter programme affects access to public transport, there is also the issue of safety and comfort of this mode of transport, especially for young children.
The government’s enduring commitment to cash and in-kind benefits for children is still intact, however, Budget 2019 provides insufficient detail and support for innovation and for tackling unresolved quality challenges that affect the quality of life of children. Government is encouraged to continue working towards the unabated expansion of access, while ensuring that services are ultimately about quality and bringing about real changes in the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable children in South Africa.
Sanjay Wijesekera is Associate Director of Programmes in UNICEF and head of the organization’s global programmes for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.