12 March 2021 –
For the first time ever, the UNCAC Coalition hosted a regional meeting for its members and affiliated groups in Sub-Saharan Africa on 2 March 2021. Around 20 representatives from civil society organizations from all over the region came together to discuss the crucial issue of public procurement in times of COVID-19. After a brief introduction by Vienna Hub-representative Danella Newman, the Coalition’s Regional Coordinator for Sub-Saharan Africa Pusetso Morapedi introduced the topic at hand, as well as the three speakers, who provided insights into public procurement in times of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya.
Historically, public procurement has been the site of all kinds of corrupt activities and practices all over the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the cost of public procurement can account for up to 30% of a country’s gross domestic product. Various studies suggest that an average of 10-25% of a public contracts’ value may be lost due to corruption.
UNCAC Article 9 requires States Parties to base their public procurement systems on the principles of transparency, competition and objective criteria in decision-making. However, emergency procurement measures and practices introduced by countless states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have greatly disregarded these principles, opening the door to widespread corruption.
Although for the most part not as severely struck by the global COVID-19 pandemic as other regions of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa nevertheless felt the impact of the coronavirus on generally under-funded and under-resourced health systems. In many countries, accelerated procurement processes were introduced under states of disaster or emergency to procure much-needed medical and pharmaceutical supplies in order to confront the virus.
Country examples of public procurement in times of COVID-19
The following are summaries of the presentations held by the three speakers:
In her presentation, Muchaneta Mundopa from Coalition member organization Transparency International (TI)-Zimbabwe underscored several limitations that civil society faces when monitoring public procurement in Zimbabwe. She explained that oversight was relaxed to a certain degree in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a disregard for accountability. A former Minister of Health and Child Care was arrested due to his alleged involvement in public procurement corruption. Consequently, TI-Zimbabwe and others starting to track the beneficial owners of companies that were awarded public procurement contracts. Cases like the one in Zimbabwe demonstrate that a high level of secrecy in procurements increases the likelihood of high-level corruption, as leaders do not adhere to the principles enshrined in UNCAC Article 9, which promotes best practices in preventing corruption and unethical behavior.
Ms. Mundopa stated that while COVID-19 has amplified the already existent inequalities caused by corruption in Zimbabwe, it has also shone a light on the importance of citizens being aware of their fundamental rights and the need to actively participate, and not just be spectators to decisions that will affect them. There has been an overall rise in citizen agency in the country and in the region, where citizens are demanding healthcare.
Gilbert Sedungwa from the Coalition member organization Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) in Uganda highlighted in his presentation that even before COVID-19, public procurement was one of the areas most affected by secrecy and interference from businesses and government officials. The AFIC conducted a study that shows that COVID-19 increased public procurement corruption risks, particularly under the state of emergencies where there has been a relaxation of oversight measures under the guise of a stronger focus on “keeping safe and basic survival”. As a consequence, high spending and increased secrecy in public procurement are being observed in Uganda.
According to Mr. Sendungwa, despite receiving some assistance for its COVID-19 response, Uganda is still not conducting its procurement processes in an accountable and transparent manner, going against the UNCAC Article 9 principles. A large part of the COVID-19 budget in his country was approved as classified and certain funds were allocated to agencies with no clear role in the COVID-19 response. Furthermore, civic space has been severely restricted, using COVID-19 as an excuse to limit access to information, freedom of expression and the right of association, for instance by blocking internet pages such as Facebook and prohibiting public gatherings. While the ruling party continues to be free to organize meetings despite the risk of infection with the virus, any attempt for people to gather has been met with serious violence and a resulting misreporting of deaths, severely hindering the ability of citizens to demand accountability and transparency from their government.
In her presentation, Ms. Harriet Wachira from Coalition-affiliated group Transparency International (TI)-Kenya reported that over 70% of corruption scandals in Kenya involve procurement. When COVID-19 emerged, an emergency response committee was called together to manage responses, but without any consideration for corruption in the process. Even before the pandemic, the necessary steps to establish appropriate systems of procurement based on transparency, competition and objective criteria in decision-making had not been taken.
As a result, millions of US dollars were lost through over-pricing of items, and less competitive companies were awarded procurement contracts, amongst other issues, which were raised by the Auditor-General after a special audit was conducted at the behest of Parliament. Some enquiries are still ongoing. The Kenyan Senate established an ad-hoc committee to investigate how the country was responding to the pandemic, which nonetheless did not prevent corruption scandals from happening. Furthermore, despite the existence of a register for beneficial ownership companies in Kenya, it is only accessible to certain authorities. Civil society has been advocating for the government to make it publicly available, to enable better monitoring, more transparency and accountability.
Ms. Wachira underlined the importance of embedding accountability and planning into procurement processes in line with UNCAC Article 9 from the onset, and not retroactively. She noted that transparency cannot be sacrificed and civil society has rallied around this, submitting many access to information requests as a result of what is happening in Kenya.
In summary, the size of the procurement market, its proportion as a percentage of the gross domestic product and its interaction between public and private sector actors, makes it vulnerable to corruption. This should be a primary area of concern for the integrity of all public administrations. Political will must be axiomatically cultivated to implement the UNCAC and serve States Parties’ citizens, particularly during a pandemic.
The three case studies presented during this first regional meeting for Sub-Saharan Africa highlight the importance of building and maintaining transparent, fair and open procurement frameworks and integrity systems already in peaceful times, in order to have a solid foundation to build upon in times of crisis. On a positive note, corruption scandals all over the region have incentivized citizens to raise their voices and demand full transparency and accountability on how public funds are being spent and who benefits from government contracts.
Following a poll held during the meeting on priority issues in anti-corruption, the topics most likely to be discussed during the next regional meeting, to be held in 2-3 months, are access to information, whistleblower protection, and gender and corruption.