1st MENA Regional Meeting in 2024: Promoting Transparency in Public Procurement in the MENA Region

18 March 2024 – 

Reforming public procurement: A vital way to enhance service delivery and ensure better lives for citizens

In the UNCAC Coalition’s Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) regional meeting in late February, activists from the region discussed governments’ number one procurement risk – public contracting – and the different challenges civil society organizations (CSOs) face across the region in their efforts to advocate for transparency, accountability and integrity in public procurement. At the meeting, the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability AMAN – TI Palestine and Jordan Transparency Center presented their work in relation to public procurement, particularly in the sectors of building and (re)construction, which was followed by a group discussion to exchange good practices from the region. Kristen Robinson, Head of Advocacy at Open Contracting Partnership and member of the UNCAC Coalition’s board, shared insights on the challenges and opportunities for advancing open contracting in countries around the globe. 

The UNCAC Coalition MENA regional group members have been involved in various efforts to advance transparency in public procurement processes and put forward the following lessons learned and recommendations:

  • Building networks in the region and developing national coalitions with CSOs working on different sectors can be very powerful: In Palestine, two coalitions have been established that focus on budget transparency and monitoring reconstruction efforts with a focus on public procurement. 
  • CSO can build the capacity of other stakeholders on procurement reform: TI Palestine has been conducting trainings on governance and the Public Procurement Law to empower local civil society to monitor public purchasing processes, including trainings for public servants and employees in the private sector.
  • Independent media as a crucial ally: Collaborating with journalists, in particular reporters who do investigative work, can help strengthen their expertise on procurement and thus support independent reporting that uncovers corruption cases involving powerful individuals.                                     

Procurement as the No.1 Corruption Risk

With governments spending an estimated US$ 13 trillion per year on public contracts, procurement provides big corruption risks. The UN Convention against Corruption’s (UNCAC) Article 9 (1.) focuses on public procurement and the management of public finances, requiring that States Parties take the necessary steps to establish appropriate procurement systems, reflecting the principles of competition and transparency. At the recent UNCAC CoSP10, States Parties adopted the first-ever resolution devoted to procurement, underlining the need to advance reforms of public contracting systems and practices globally: Resolution 10/9 on “Promoting transparency and integrity in public procurement in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (you can find the UNCAC Coalition’s analysis on key aspects of this resolution here).  

The Arab world is facing unprecedented challenges relating to good governance, with citizens rising up to demand more transparency, integrity and inclusion. Public procurement systems are at the heart of these demands. Their reform presents a chance to improve public policies and public services, leading to tangible results that improve citizens’ lives at large. 

If a procurement system becomes truly open – from the planning and budgeting stage, to a competitive tender, the contract award, and the contract’s implementation – then civil society organizations and other stakeholders can participate and monitor public contracts, for example, by flagging problematic selection criteria and by independently verifying if goods and services have been delivered in line with contract requirements, established standards and within the allocated budget.

Challenges faced by civil society in promoting transparency in public procurement processes

According to the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability AMAN – TI Palestine, one of the main challenges in Palestine is related to legislation. While a new law became effective in 2014, it is considered a relatively young experiment and does not reflect the principles of integrity and transparency. Simultaneously, other laws that relate to public procurement are either weak or absent, such as laws on the prohibition of monopolization and ensuring fair competition. This comes in addition to flaws in the law to attract foreign direct investment and in the framework to manage conflicts of interest. While the law on companies has undergone reforms, it does not address the disclosure of beneficial owners of companies. Furthermore, TI Palestine contends that “there is no acceptance of the role of civil society in monitoring procurement processes”.

In Jordan, the existence of a variety of public procurement systems has been a challenge. According to the Jordan Transparency Center, the protection of whistleblowers remains inadequate. Thus, public servants fear reporting corrupt practices they witness in the management of public finances. Moreover, there are limited funds to build the capacity of personnel across government departments and units to reform government procurement systems.

In other contexts, the lack of existence of a central government, as the case is in Yemen, presents a pressing issue when it comes to the implementation of legislation into practice. A representative of the Studies and Economic Media Center highlighted that it is difficult – often impossible – for local CSOs to monitor public contracting, particularly in the sectors that are most vulnerable to corruption, such as extractive industries and aid delivery, because information is not publicly accessible.

In Tunisia, after the 2011 revolution, an online system for public procurement was put in place, which resulted in improved compliance with legal provisions. A representative of the I-WATCH Organization shared that many reports of corruption cases the organization receives relate to corruption in public procurement. An outstanding case is procurement in the transportation sector, where trams and buses were purchased by the government that turned out to be used. The shutdown of the anti-corruption commission in 2021 implied a setback for transparency reforms in the country and put whistleblowers in Tunisia in danger.

Civil Society’s efforts and recommendations to reform public procurement systems 

Kristen Robinson, Head of Advocacy at Open Contracting Partnership, suggested that CSOs seeking to advance reforms of public procurement systems should assess their own context, including analyzing their opportunities and constraints. What is the level of trust between the government, businesses and civil society? How do they evaluate the civic space and freedom to operate? Are there financial and human resources available to support a procurement reform? What is the level of digitization so far, how does procurement reform fit into the government’s own agenda and citizens’ concerns, and can existing relationships with multilateral organizations contribute to generating momentum for a reform vis-a-vis the respective government? It is vital for CSOs to identify the best approach, understand the reform objective, and map out which stakeholders are involved – both enablers and blockers of reforms.

Improving public procurement requires adopting a holistic approach 

Achieving real transparency in public procurement requires a set of conditions to be in place, such as the freedom of access to information, empowered CSOs, accessible financial information, easily available documents relating to contract awards and interest declarations of public officials, a colleague from Transparency Maroc stressed. Above all, participants agreed that a prerequisite to tackling corruption in public procurement is providing protection for CSOs and anti-corruption activists facing criminalization and persecution by their governments,  while continuously resisting the already very narrow civic space in the region.

If you are a civil society activist from the MENA region and would like to become involved, please contact our Regional Coordinator Mariana Ghawaly at email hidden; JavaScript is required.