Donors must match speed with transparency in coronavirus funding, advocates say

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Advocates urge increased transparency on COVID-19 funding among national governments and international development agencies. Photo by: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

BURLINGTON, Vt. — As international donors work to get money out the door and into the hands of governments responding to the coronavirus pandemic, transparency advocates hope they will balance urgency with a strong call for open contracting and procurement.

“It’s perfectly possible to take open approaches — open government, open data — [to doing procurement] very quickly. And indeed, when you do that, you tend to get better outcomes,” Gavin Hayman, executive director of the Open Contracting Partnership, told Devex.

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Multilateral development banks are currently ramping up their spending in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The World Bank, for example, has announced plans to spend $160 billion over the next 15 months, effectively front-loading finance over a significantly shorter period of time than it would have without the emergency demand created by the pandemic. Hayman and others want the bank and its peer institutions to ensure the money they disburse comes with clear and strong recommendations to governments about tracking and publishing how those funds are spent.

In April, as multilateral institutions began mobilizing to increase their financial support, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva urged governments to “spend as much as you can, but keep the receipts.”

“We don't want accountability and transparency to take a back seat in this crisis,” she cautioned.

Hayman wants governments to go a step further — keep the receipts, accurately tag the ones that involved emergency procurement processes for COVID-19, and make the information publicly available.

“It’s a simple requirement: Tell us who’s getting the contracts and assemble that information in a vaguely readable format,” Hayman said.

“There’s no reason why, if you are a country, you can’t be tagging your emergency contracts, and we’re seeing some countries doing that with great success,” he added, citing Moldova, which has struggled with health procurement scandals in the past but has adopted a simple process for tagging and tracking emergency contracts.

COVID-19 is not the first health crisis to prompt emergency spending and raise transparency concerns. The 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa created similar challenges in countries that relied on manual, paper-based procurement systems instead of digital platforms.

“Any procurement system that was gathering data could have been hugely useful in terms of efficiency,” said Chris Smith, a procurement consultant who worked on the U.K. Department for International Development’s emergency procurement project.

“These things happen so quickly. ... The pressure’s piled on, and we are hearing so many examples of bad procurement. I wouldn’t even call it corrupt; I would just call it incompetent,” Smith said.

“It’s a simple requirement: Tell us who’s getting the contracts and assemble that information in a vaguely readable format.”

— Gavin Hayman, executive director, Open Contracting Partnership

While donors around the world continue to add to a growing list of financial pledges to support the pandemic response, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow those funds from donor to partner government, then to provider and to their eventual procurement of goods and services.

“What happens next? Where is this money actually going? And where it goes and how it’s procured and disbursed is going to affect lives. It’s not just about transparency — corruption and inefficiency are going to be killing people one way or another,” Smith said.

In the COVID-19 response, transparent procurement is particularly critical given the global scramble for medical equipment, which risks seeing some governments and communities sidelined by better-connected buyers, Hayman said.

“What really matters at the moment is matching buyers and suppliers,” he added, describing the current situation as a “Hunger Games” that pits hospitals, national governments, cities, and international organizations against each other in a “desperate scramble” to procure lifesaving equipment.

“Where is this money actually going? And where it goes and how it’s procured and disbursed is going to affect lives.”

— Chris Smith, procurement consultant

Some suppliers are demanding payment upfront, forcing development agencies to create entirely new funding mechanisms simply to afford essential goods.

Part of the problem has been a lack of transparency in the planning stage, Smith said, adding that governments are currently dealing with the fallout of failing to communicate their future procurement needs to the market.

“A lot of the donors have played an active role in procurement reform projects around the world … often equipping countries with the procurement platforms they have,” Smith said.

“I would hope they’re reminding themselves about the use of these tools that they’ve funded,” he added.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.