Guest Post: Afghanistan’s Radical–and So-Far-Surprisingly Successful–Public Procurement Reforms

Today’s guest post is co-authored by frequent GAB guest contributor Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft and former Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, together with Sohail Kaakar of the Afghanistan National Procurement Authority.

Afghanistan may be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but it is also where some of the world’s most innovative anticorruption solutions are being implemented. Case in point: Afghanistan’s reforms to its public procurement system.

In Afghanistan, government procurement accounts for 19% of GDP and almost 50% of the national budget. However, procurement corruption has long been endemic, with many figures taking large cuts from almost every contract, and many contracts being little more than money-extraction schemes. But in 2015—at a critical juncture, when Afghanistan’s government was faced with unprecedented public pressure due to insecurity, recession, withdrawal of international troops—the government adopted significant reforms to its procurement system in order to curb corruption and improve government performance. (The immediate catalyst for the reform was a particularly corrupt military fuel contract, but the reforms go well beyond addressing this one incident.)

After a brief review of alternatives, the Afghan government decided on a radical reform based on a single regulatory body and a centralized procurement system. Continue reading

Guest Post: Tackling Corruption in Afghanistan’s Education Sector

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

One of the successes of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan has been the rise in the numbers of students attending school, especially girls. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, more than 9.2 million children, 39% of them girls, are now enrolled in school (though these statistics continue to be disputed, with alternative enrollment estimates ranging between 6 and 10 million). Yet the Afghan government, the citizenry, and external observers are all well aware that the education system remains beset by endemic corruption. As one parent put it in a focus group discussion: “A suicide attack isn’t the most dangerous thing for us, because a few people will die…. It is the unprofessional and unknowledgeable teachers that are most dangerous for us because they kill the future of Afghanistan.”

A major new report from the Afghanistan Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (known as MEC), carried out at the request of the Minister of Education, evaluates the corruption vulnerabilities across the education system and how they need to be addressed. The study, conducted in cooperation with the Education Ministry, visited 138 schools in nine provinces, and conducted over 500 interviews with a range of stakeholders (including Ministry officials, provincial education officials, teachers, parents, students, and others), as well as 160 focus group discussions. These interviews and focus group discussions assessed a broad range of education corruption issues, including both corruption that arises at the level of schools and districts (such as students paying for advance copies of papers, or teachers using nepotistic influence to avoid having to turn up) and corruption in central government education policy and management (such as corruption in teacher appointments, school construction, and textbook procurement). Some of the report’s main findings are as follows: Continue reading

Fighting Procurement Corruption: the Essential Role of Bid Challenge Systems

Ensuring firms that loose the competition for a government contract can challenge the result is a critical part of the fight against corruption in public procurement.  A losing bidder will have lost the chance to make a profit and will have invested time and money in preparing its bid.  It thus has not only a strong motive for contesting a decision it believes tainted by corruption but the expertise to do so.  Bid challenge systems complement procurement oversight by civil society.  Indeed, they may even be a more powerful tool.  Whereas civil society monitoring typically relies on public-spirited volunteers unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the procurement, bid challenge systems harness firms’ self-interest and technical knowledge in service of ferreting out procurement corruption.

Transparency International’s 2014 volume on combating procurement corruption and the OECD’s 2016 procurement integrity handbook both note the importance of bid challenge systems but offer little guidance on what makes for an effective system.  Here are five questions anticorruption advocates can ask to assess the effectiveness of their nation’s bid challenge system: Continue reading

Guest Post: Turning Big Data Into a Useful Anticorruption Tool in Africa

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dr. Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett of the University of Sussex, who contributes today’s guest post:

Many anticorruption advocates are excited about the prospects that “big data” will help detect and deter graft and other forms of malfeasance. As part of a project in this vein, titled Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-Funded Procurement, Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, and I have collected contract-level data on how aid money from three major donors is spent through national procurement systems; our dataset comprises more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years. But good data alone isn’t enough. To be useful, there must be a group of interested and informed users, who have both the tools and the skills to analyse the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings. The analysis of big datasets to find evidence of corruption – for example, the method developed by Mihály Fazekas to identify “red flags” of corruption risks in procurement contract data—requires statistical skills and software, both of which are in short supply in many parts of the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet some ambitious recent initiatives are trying to address this problem. Lately I’ve had the privilege to be involved in one such initiative, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower a group of young African mathematicians to analyse “big data” on public corruption. Continue reading

The Costs of Procurement Gaming: Evidence from the Czech Republic

Like any complex bureaucratic process, a public procurement system can be “gamed,” its rules manipulated to defeat the system’s purpose.  Procurement systems are particularly susceptible to gaming for they are designed to advance two objectives in conflict.  One is to allow governments to buy what they need when they need it quickly and easily.  The second is to prevent fraud and corruption from infecting the system by imposing elaborate safeguards at every step in the purchasing process – at the cost of making it slow, cumbersome, and costly.  The pressures to privilege the first at the expense of the second are many: the agency needs a replacement part immediately; every day the road is left unrepaired traffic snarls and citizens’ patience tested; overworked staff don’t have time to conduct a full-blown procurement.  The result is that procurement officers are always on the lookout for ways to bypass, or “game,” the rules that slow the process down.

One way is to attach an unrealistically low estimate on what the item to be procured will cost.  If the estimated price is below a certain amount, procurement officers can avoid conducting a full-fledged, open tender.  Below the threshold, in many systems $1 million, procurement officers need not prepare a lengthy, formal tender document, advertise it widely for a several week period, constitute a technical committee to evaluate the bids, and follow the many other rules for open, competitive procurements. They can instead use streamlined procedures — variously termed “shopping” or a “request for” or “invitation to submit” quotes—which allow them to call a few suppliers for a price quotation and take the lowest one offered.

No one with experience in public procurement doubts that threshold gaming sometimes occurs.  The questions are how often and why.  Do procurement staff regularly underestimate the contract price to push it below the threshold and avoid the panoply of procurement rules that would otherwise have to be applied?  Do staff do so to secure desperately needed items faster and cheaper?  For other legitimate ends?   Or to further corrupt deals?

New research now settles these questions – at least for the Czech Republic. Moreover, in answering them the researchers use techniques that others can employ to analyze the same questions in their countries. Continue reading

Building a Cadre of Procurement Professionals

Government purchases of goods, services, and public works constitute anywhere from 15 percent to as much as 40 percent of total public spending, and thus any government committed to fighting corruption should make procurement a priority. Corruption sneaks into public procurement in many ways in the long and often complex chain of events in the process: from identifying a need to designing the specifications for meeting the need to the award of a contract and the delivery of the final product.  While stepping up procurement audits and investigations can weed procurement out of corruption, far better is to keep it from infecting the process in the first place.

For that a government needs a cadre of well-trained public procurement professionals dedicated to ensuring their country receives the best value for every dollar it spends building roads or acquiring high tech communications equipment or simply buying pencils and papers for schools. Procurement professionals must be knowledgeable about law, finance, engineering, project management, economics, and of course corruption, and while some of that learning can be picked up through intensive on-the-job training programs, building a first-rate, technically sophisticated cadre of procurement specialists takes more than putting those with a generalist degree through a few o-j-t courses.  It requires, as Francis Fukuyama explains in discussing how the public services of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom’s public services were built, university courses that teach prospective public servants basic analytic skills and tools, knowledge that simply cannot be mastered in a week or even several week intensive training course.

For the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime I have been asked to suggest what a curriculum leading to an undergraduate degree in public procurement might look like.  In “Building Sustainable Capacity in Public Procurement,” Peter Trepte of Nottingham University’s Public Procurement Research Group explains that teaching public servants what the procurement law is and how to comply with it is not enough.  To conduct fair, effective, and efficient procurements requires an interdisciplinary course of study that trains students in how to identify procurement needs, plan procurement activities, assess market conditions, manage relations with bidders and contractors, and administer contracts.

Below is my effort to follow Professor Trepte’s advice.   Comments are most welcome. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Disclosures in Foreign Settlements Don’t Spur Domestic Prosecutions in Argentina

Natalia Volosin, a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School and clerk in the Asset Recovery Unit at Argentina’s Attorney General’s Office, contributes the following guest post (adapted and from an op-ed previously published in Spanish in the Argentine newspaper Infobae):

The so-called “Lavo Jato” investigation into bribery and money laundering at Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras led to the biggest transnational bribery settlement in history: In December 2016, the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht reached a settlement with law enforcement authorities in the United States, Brazil, and Switzerland; in exchange for its guilty plea, Odebrecht and its affiliate Braskem agreed to pay the three countries a total of $3.5 billion, of which the first firm alone will pay $2.6 billion. (Odebrecht agreed that the total criminal penalty amounts to $4.5 billion, but the final number will be determined according to its ability to pay, though it will be no less than $2.6 billion.) According to the agreement, Brazil will get 80 per cent of the penalty, while the United States and Switzerland will get 10 per cent each.

Some hope that the Odebrecht settlement will provide a boost to anticorruption investigations in other countries. After all, in the settlement documents, the firm acknowledged to having made illegal payments worth $788 million between 2001 and 2016, not only in Brazil, but in a dozen countries including Angola, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. In Argentina specifically, Odebrecht admitted that between 2007 and 2014, in three separate infrastructure projects, it paid intermediaries a total of $35 million knowing that they would be partially transferred to government officials. These criminal practices earned the company a $278 million benefit—a return on “investment” of over 694% (the highest among all the recipient countries). Will these revelations have significant consequences for the prosecution of corruption cases in Argentina?

The answer is probably no, at least not in the short term. Continue reading