Corruption in the health sector—a longstanding problem that may cost $500 billion per year globally—has become an even more salient concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus swept the globe, many governments responded by sidestepping traditional procurement safeguards in the interest of speeding up emergency responses. While it was important to provide relief as quickly as possible, the relaxed regulations allowed corruption to thrive, leading to numerous scandals. To illustrate with just a few of the many, many possible examples: Bolivia’s Minister of Health was detained for allegedly purchasing 179 unusable ventilators at twice their original price; Indonesia’s Minister for Social Affairs was suspected of having pocketed US$1.1 million in funds relating to COVID-19 aid; and senior leaders and wealthy individuals in numerous countries, including Canada, Peru, Argentina, Spain, and Poland, jumped the queue to get access to vaccines. Much of this health sector corruption arises due to a lack of transparency and accountability in the governing systems. Especially in the midst of what seems like a never-ending pandemic, working towards combatting this type of corruption is especially salient as citizens are relying on the government for more health-related needs.
Anticorruption advocates have long argued that civil society organizations (CSOs) can and should play an important role in monitoring government activities and promoting accountability in the health context and elsewhere. A particularly encouraging example of the constructive role that CSOs can play, in the specific context of the COVID-19 response, comes from Argentina. Last year, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International, known as Poder Ciudadano, launched a COVID-19 Public Procurement Observatory, which uses open-source information to make procurement deals available to the public. Using this monitoring tool, Poder Ciudadano carried out an exhaustive survey of public purchases and contracting that took place within the COVID-19 emergency procurement framework. By December 2020, Poder Ciudadano had tracked more than seven hundred procurement activities valued at US$200 million. In addition to its work in monitoring COVID-related procurement, Poder Ciudadano worked with other CSOs to ensure transparency and equity in vaccine distribution. Using information provided by the Ministry of Health, these CSOs ensured daily publication of information about the numbers of vaccine shipments, their distribution, and who had been vaccinated. These transparency measures help prevent improper favoritism and other departures from the official vaccine distribution plan.
This example is both encouraging and instructive. The Poder Ciudadano case highlights how CSOs can be effective in promoting accountability and transparency in procurement and distribution. But this example also underscores that in order to play this role, CSOs in developing countries need outside funding, partnerships, and resources, as well as the support and cooperation of their governments. CSOs can play a vital role, but only if they have the right kind of help.