Written by Sara Hoenes

 

Accountability Lab and the Center for Private Enterprise kicked off the #HackCorruption roundtable speaker series on June 27, hosting a conversation with Gabriella Razzano, Executive Director of OpenUp, and Dr. Allison Anthony of the African Procurement Law Unit. The discussion covered how Southern African countries can use new and emerging technologies to mitigate corruption risks and increase citizen participation in the public procurement process. 

Foreign investment in African infrastructure to meet the Sustainable Development Goals is estimated to be nearly $93 billion a year. Across Africa, it is estimated that nearly half of all government spending is on procurement contracts. The UN office of Drugs and Crime estimates that 10-20% of public funding for procurements is lost to corruption, and in Africa this number is likely to be much higher. Technology can offer solutions to accountability issues when it comes to public procurement. The panel discussed challenges, progress, opportunities and next steps. 

Hurdles to progress in procurement

When addressing the challenge of corruption in public procurement, our panelists discussed the importance of considering all forms of corruption. Although embezzlement is the most common form of corruption, other types of corruption pose considerable challenges to the procurement process, such as nondelivery of goods and services and sexual exploitation. Dr. Anthony published a research paper with Open Contracting Partnership on sexual exploitation in the procurement process. This type of corruption can deter women from getting involved in government contracting. Creating a gender-responsive procurement process can provide opportunities for women-owned businesses to benefit from government contracting. 

The panelists discussed the lack of availability of high-speed internet as a major challenge to transparency and citizen engagement. South Africa’s broadband prices are among the highest in the world. Although the South African government has promised free data and high-speed broadband in every community, little progress has been made to reach this goal. 

Ms. Razzano noted additional challenges in public procurement include operating with outdated IT systems and a lack of high-quality, reliable data to inform monitoring and evaluation, procurement outcomes, and systems across government and external stakeholders.

There have been significant advancements in the region, including new laws and e-procurement initiatives in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, South Africa lags behind other countries in e-procurement policy. In February of 2020, the South African Parliament issued a draft bill regarding public procurement and a call for public comment. Progress on the bill was stymied after a recent court ruling declaring the policy framework unconstitutional. 

Opportunities to exploit

The coronavirus pandemic has provided opportunities to increase the use of technology across multiple sectors. After the misuse of Covid-19 funding, an uptick in public interest in the procurement process prompted OpenUp to create Keep the Receipts – a way for citizens to easily track procurement projects related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The website translates complicated government documents into online information that the public can easily engage with. OpenUp has also made budget information more accessible by partnering with the national treasury to create Vulekamali, an open budget portal. 

Although these projects have made information more widely accessible to citizens, effective monitoring of government contracts remains a challenge. 

Dr. Anthony suggested a to-do list of tangible steps South Africa can take to increase transparency in public procurement, starting by scaling up the government’s efforts to provide high-speed broadband and updating the IT systems that go along with e-procurement systems. She discussed creating a legal framework that gives policymakers the power to change existing public procurement laws and the need for the current public procurement bill to include provisions specific to the needs of South Africa. The policy should also be in line with global advancements in order to attract foreign investment. She also suggested that South Africa look to external stakeholders to grow the IT capacity of government workers. 

Ms. Razzano suggested starting with local government procurement initiatives that can be scaled up and noted that there are existing blockchain and AI start-ups in the region, whose talent and expertise can be used to scale up government efforts to use technology in the procurement process.

Our panelists closed the conversation by discussing  the importance of increasing citizen participation. OpenUp takes a three-part approach to active citizenship: inform, empower, and activate. Ms. Razzano emphasized the role of data as a tool of political power, commenting that there is a lot of information available that people are not able to engage with. Technology can help to make this information more easily understandable to the public. 

Dr. Anthony shared that in order for citizens to participate in the process, they need to be informed about public procurement and understand how it affects various sectors and the economy as a whole. Citizens should understand that they have a right to hold policymakers accountable and to ask questions. Because citizens often feel that the formal mechanisms for engaging with government officials don’t work, the panelists encouraged #HackCorruption participants to think about how technology can create a productive relationship between citizens and government at the local, provincial, and national level. 

On a final note, the panelists discussed the importance of embedding transparency into the process of public procurements. The full discussion can be found here

Working with the U.S. State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), Accountability Lab is partnering with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) to run the #HackCorruption program over the next two years. The first event is a hybrid Tech4Good event taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa July 22-24. More information is available at www.hackcorruption.org.