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Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic: Have our public contracting systems delivered for the common good?

Photo by InkheartX on Shutterstock

Rafael García Aceves

Public Contracting Policy Coordinator, Transparency International

It has been exactly six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. On 11 March, it called on all governments "to activate and scale up emergency response mechanisms", with a strong emphasis on measures to ramp up health services.

The warning triggered an unprecedented shopping spree in which governments procured personal protective equipment, medical devices and other goods. As the numbers of cases and deaths sharply increased and economic constraints worsened, new needs emerged, including setting up of new or temporary hospitals or providing food support to vulnerable communities. 

Emergency comes with risks

Six months into the pandemic, many governments are still purchasing goods and services following fast-track procedures that often lack proper planning and oversight.

During this time, the intricacy of the virus has not only marked public contracting by urgency and panic. It has also shown how vulnerable and unprepared governments are to deal with corruption networks and to buy safely.

Numerous cases of fraud and wrongdoing have been uncovered by auditing and law enforcement institutions as well as documented by investigative journalists – such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – and civil society groups worldwide.  

Civil society steps up

As we have said before, through embracing clean contracting, governments can save lives and prevent the misuse of public money. Most crucially, this requires ensuring transparency and spaces for independent oversight throughout the entire procurement process.

Amid the crisis, Transparency International's global network has actively worked to help ensure public contracting systems work for the common good. Our national chapters around the world have come up with diverse initiatives, accounting for local context and needs.

1. Data access monitoring

Initiatives undertaken by Transparency International chapters in Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Serbia are great examples of how public demand can push governments to release critical information, both at national and sub-national levels. These initiatives have examined quantity, quality, format and timeliness of available data.

2. Data analysis 

Many Transparency International chapters have worked on reviewing, analysing and visualising the available contracting data to identify patterns, trends or anomalies. Among them are qualitative investigations that document cases as well as quantitative studies that rely on statistical methods and visualisation techniques. Reports and online platforms are available by Transparency International chapters in Argentina, Colombia, Kosovo, Peru, Portugal and Ukraine.

3. Procurement monitoring 

Crucially important is to oversee COVID-19 public procurement procedures as they happen, which is what our national chapters in Honduras and Latvia have been able to do. They make use of the agreements signed with the contracting authorities, and in some cases, provide ad hoc recommendations to address corruption risks.

4. Reporting and investigation

Civil society has an important role to play in exposing potential breaches and triggering action from the institutions tasked with investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption. In Russia, a group of journalists and activists – including members of Transparency International Russia – launched an open and collaborative network to investigate corruption in public contracting, while in Tunisia, our chapter filed a lawsuit to revoke a contract after a journalist uncovered a corrupt awarding procedure.

5. Auditing

In Honduras, our chapter called on a formal investigation by the country's Supreme Accounts Tribunal and Public Ministry, after conducting an audit and presenting their findings. They have relied on an agreement with the contracting authority to provide full access to the supporting documents of a series of contracts. Their findings are public and aim to trigger legal actions when potential breaches have been identified.

Addressing corruption in public contracting in a sustainable manner calls for anti-corruption advocates to conduct an in-depth analysis of regulation, procedures and institutions to detect systemic problems and propose policy alternatives to address them. For instance, in Mexico, a new contracting law has been drafted by a coalition of experts and organisations – including Transparencia Mexicana – and presented to Congress leaders. In South Africa, a new bill has been introduced in Parliament, and our national chapter Corruption Watch has proactively provided recommendations and called for an open and collaborative legislative process.

What will the next six months bring?

Opaque and corrupt public contracting puts at risk people's lives and livelihoods, and the consequences are worse during emergencies. We need a global conversation – with a diverse and comprehensive set of perspectives – to ensure that public contracting systems serve and deliver for the common good.

This dialogue must bring together global, regional and national institutions as well as independent organisations and experts to share not just knowledge and experience, but also to take concrete actions towards greater transparency and accountability.

For instance, international financial institutions have a critical role to play in ensuring that corruption does not undermine public contracting procedures funded by the loans and grants aimed to help governments address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund has made a one trillion dollars available in lending capacity to countries since the outbreak of COVID-19. Transparency International has found that almost half of all financial agreements contain specific measures to ensure transparency or reduce the risks of corruption.

The IMF, COVID-19 and anti-corruption: The story so far

For Transparency International, the ongoing pandemic has reinforced the idea that clean contracting – public contracting that is transparent, accountable to the affected communities and taxpayers, and in line with the common good – must become the norm, not the exception.

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