26 March 2020 –
The UNCAC Coalition hosted its first regional meeting for UNCAC Coalition members from Latin America on 10 March 2021. Around 25 representatives from UNCAC Coalition member and affiliate civil society organizations (CSOs) from all over the region participated in the event. After a brief update on Coalition activities and upcoming events by Vienna Hub-representative Danella Newman, Regional Coordinator for Latin America Iñaki Albisu Arigó set the scene on public procurement and COVID-19 in the region.
Having engaged with Latin American Coalition members about their experiences and work throughout the entire pandemic, Iñaki provided a brief overview of the three “stages of corruption” in public procurement during COVID-19 times. While governments and private organizations continuously used the pandemic to circumvent the protocols of public procurement processes, civil society generally reacted quickly and held their governments to account at each stage. This was also illustrated by all three speakers in their interventions that gave insights into how procurement has been managed in Argentina, Mexico and Ecuador.
Country examples of public procurement in times of COVID-19
The following are summaries of the presentations held by the three speakers:
German Emanuele from Coalition member Fundación Poder Ciudadano began his presentation by providing an overview of how the pandemic has affected public procurement in Argentina, which broke down existing public procurement procedures in favor of a more centralized system of public procurement. This resulted in more opaque and less participatory public contracting. To shed light on the situation, Poder Ciudadano, alongside a network of other Transparency International chapters, started a COVID-19 Procurement Observatory. The aim of this initiative is to keep tabs on what and how federal governments in the region have been buying and contracting. Poder Ciudadano reviewed the records of 86 public bodies and made public information about 40% of all government procurement procedures – information that had been absent from the public record during the pandemic.
In her presentation, Irene Trello, Executive Director of Impunidad Cero, which is a new member of the UNCAC Coalition, provided an insight into how the provision of medicine and health supplies was conducted in Mexico before and during the pandemic. By highlighting three important stages in this process: 1) before 2019, 2) the first year of President Lopez Obrador’s term, 3) during the pandemic, she showed that public procurement in the health sector has always been heavily flawed and prone to corruption and that these flaws only increased during the pandemic, creating new corruption risks. Her CSO Impunidad Cero, which had been investigating access to medical supplies and medicine since before 2019, ramped up its efforts during the pandemic and produced two scathing reports on the state of federal public procurement in Mexico: the first giving account of fraudulent receipts in health procurement, and the second exposing the links between corruption in procurement and the lack of medical supplies. Irene concluded that based on their research, the WHO’s bleak forecast of how long it will take for Mexico to fully vaccinate its vulnerable population is likely to be proven right.
The third speaker, Andrés Altamirano from Coalition-affiliated organization Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (FCD), explained how emergency public procurement procedures have been abused in Ecuador during the pandemic. While emergency public procurement had already been in place before the pandemic, in instances of national disasters, the prolonged state of emergency in the country, which lasted about 6 months, gave officials the ability to use direct spending mechanisms even after the first pandemic panic had passed. In this context, FCD launched the Public Procurement Observatory with the aim of making unavailable data public, and processing available information to inform citizens about how public funds are being spent. They released their findings periodically, providing an updated account of the state of public procurement as 2020 progressed. Among the findings of the Observatory was that between April and September 2020, an astonishing number of 7,877 emergency contracts were signed for a total of USD 221.79 million. Many of these contracts were carried out to purchase and contract non-essential goods and services, such as office supplies or public works. Additionally, FCD found cases of outright illegality, where companies barred from participating in public bidding were awarded contracts regardless of their status.
Other CSO initiatives on public procurement during the pandemic
- Similar to Poder Ciudadano and FCD, Transparencia por Colombia established a Public Procurement Observatory in which more than 19,000 contracts have been digitized into open formats;
- Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA) published a report on how they monitored access to medicine and medical supplies during the pandemic in Argentina, with an emphasis on sexual and reproductive health;
- The CSO PODER from México has been investigating the private sector side of procurement in Mexico and Latin America, by looking at the tax and fiscal benefits pharmaceutical companies received from the government during the pandemic; and
- Transparencia Mexicana shared a link to a video of the 2020 Civic Anticorruption Summit, where anticorruption mascots from Peru, Mexico, and Colombia come together to discuss the issue of corruption during the pandemic.
Participants highlighted the importance of global organizations and initiatives, like WHO and the COVAX initiative, to provide detailed and transparent information about their procurements during the pandemic, and referred to the UNCAC itself as the perfect instrument to incentivize these organizations to play by the same rules as national governments.
Conclusions and moving forward
A general consensus of the first UNCAC Coalition Regional Meeting for Latin America was that the precarious, opaque state of public procurement, both before and even more so during the pandemic, was similarly experienced in all countries in the region and that consequentially, there is a crucial need to involve citizens in monitoring activities. Nevertheless, the meeting concluded on a rather positive note, as the initiatives shared by the participants proved that change was possible and that civil society is capable of spearheading that change.
Finally, participants eagerly proposed topics for future regional meetings and discussions, the next one of which is to be held in 2-3 months on topics such as access to information, political party financing, or whistleblower protection.