Much attention was devoted to the corruption that dominated emergency responses during the Covid-19 pandemic. My team and I undertook research for Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Evidence Program on the different ways in which countries and donors respond to an emergency and the corruption risks that accompany these responses. Our research examines the use of emergency powers by states, the use of emergency procurement frameworks and the emergency disbursement of aid by multilateral development banks. We found that corruption risks increase in emergencies for reasons such as the pressure to respond to a sudden and often lethal event; the rapid inflow of resources to address the event; and the relaxation of process controls in spending. These increased corruption risks create vulnerabilities that are exploited by unethical persons leading to the corruption scandals that dominate the media during emergencies such as the Haitian earthquake, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Emergency powers are used to implement disaster relief measures and may also/can? suspend civil liberties that may impede efforts to address a crisis. Some governments use emergency decrees to suspend or limit freedom of information requests, making it harder to uncover public failures after the fact. Although there has been limited focus on the relationship between emergency powers and corruption, we found that the use of emergency powers presents corruption risks, as they circumvent parliamentary processes, limiting deliberation and accountability. A worrying feature of emergency powers is their long-term use, which can entrench state capture, undermine the rule of law and propel backsliding in democracies.
A major channel through which public funds are spent and lost to corruption is the public procurement system. For the last two decades, my research has focused on inclusive procurement and the relationship between corruption and public procurement. This relationship is intensified in a crisis and during emergencies, increased corruption risks manifest in procurement as sub-optimal purchases that are inadequate to mitigate the effects of the emergency, over or under estimating public needs, bribery, conflicts of interests, price gouging and procurement fraud. One impact of procurement corruption during emergencies is a lack of trust in public institutions, which damages social cohesion and impacts community resilience. The public mistrust fostered by corruption during the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to vaccine hesitancy and mass disregard for public health recommendations in sub-Saharan Africa.
Emergencies are also an opportunity for donors to provide aid to countries struggling to manage the financial and other consequences of a crisis. Corruption in emergency aid affects donor willingness to support affected countries and this can hamper emergency responses. The risk of corruption in development aid is present when donor funds are ring-fenced for projects and when aid is given as budget support and spent through the procurement system. Despite the attention to anti-corruption by donors, the nature of anti-corruption measures in development aid may simply displace corruption rather than reduce it (Dávid-Barrett & Fazekas, 2018).
During the Open Government Partnership Africa and Middle East regional meetings (OGP) in Morocco in November 2022, I and colleagues from Global Integrity, Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) and the Africa Freedom of Information Centre held a panel discussion on corruption risks, emergencies and effective service delivery. At the panel we launched our policy brief on crisis responses and corruption and highlighted the measures that could mitigate corruption risks in emergencies. The first measure is for governments to implement a crisis preparedness plan (CPP). Previous emergencies have shown that crisis preparedness is crucial to successful emergency responses and governments still fall short in preparing for even predictable disasters. A CPP should contain a framework for emergency procurement and include coordination mechanisms between key agencies and procurement centralisation bodies. A CPP must also include clarity on approvals, roles, responsibilities, verification, and the nature of audits, whilst addressing domestic production capacity, stockpiling and distribution, which will alleviate the pressure to buy and the inability to verify suppliers during an emergency. It must include the use of data analytics to assess changing requirements for goods and services, to assist agencies in understanding the current inventory and public needs, mitigating price-gouging, under or over purchasing.
Secondly, there need to be improvements in monitoring and oversight by public control agencies. Many countries waive transparency and accountability measures for emergency contracts making monitoring even more crucial. Control agencies can use data analytics to detect anomalous patterns and respond to procurement irregularities. In South Africa, the Auditor General began to issue “Citizens’ reports” on the governments’ management of Covid-19 spending from September 2020. Audit institutions can detect when funds were embezzled and where conflicts of interest prevailed. An important aspect of monitoring is reviewing both awarded contracts and the contracts that were not awarded to understand (in)consistencies in contract award decisions.
Monitoring and oversight must include civil society organizations, although this requires public sector transparency and the provision of accessible (and up to date) information. For instance, at the OGP meeting, our panel highlighted the support civil society can provide to help governments address and mitigate corruption in emergencies. This support includes projects such as the Covid-19 Transparency and Accountability Project (CTAP), which promotes accountability and transparency by tracking Covid-19 intervention funds across nine African countries. CTAP is executed by a consortium comprising BudgIT Foundation, Connected Development and Global Integrity and has been acclaimed for its role in supporting public sector accountability in vulnerable sectors like health. In Argentina, Poder Ciudadano, (a chapter of Transparency International) created the Covid-19 Procurement Observatory to provide citizens with information on emergency procurement. Civil society may also be included in monitoring contract implementation, as there are often gaps in contract monitoring during emergencies, leading to increased losses.
The third measure needed to address corruption in emergencies is improving electronic procurement (e-procurement) systems. The absence of fully functional e-procurement systems was a constraint for 59% of countries surveyed during Covid-19. Contract processing times are shorter on e-procurement platforms and the platforms generate the data required for monitoring. Such data can highlight networks of companies and suspicious contracts, especially where beneficial ownership information is collected and integrated into the procurement data architecture. E-procurement systems also reduce contract prices and increase the quality of contract implementation.
At the OGP, I and colleagues from the OCP and the Kenyan procurement regulator participated in another panel that examined the barriers that corruption poses to inclusive and gender responsive procurement. Our panel highlighted that corruption in procurement has a gender dimension, which needs to be addressed through increased transparency, adequate legal and policy frameworks and the prioritization of women-led businesses.
The OGP regional meetings underscored the need for continued cooperation between governments, academia and civil society and the necessity for collaboration between civil society organisations like Global Integrity and the OCP to scale their impact in addressing complex societal problems.
Dávid-Barrett, E and Fazekas M, (2018) Anti-corruption interventions in development aid: Is corruption reduced or merely displaced? Working Paper series: GTI-WP/2018:02. Available at https://ace.globalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/David-Barrett-Fazekas_Displacement-effects_20180914_GTI-WP-format.pdf
Sope Williams has worked as an academic for 22 years in the fields of public procurement and anti-corruption law in the universities of Stirling, Nottingham and Lagos and is currently a professor at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. She co-developed and teaches on the LLM and PGDip in Public Procurement Regulation and Policy at Stellenbosch University. She has an LLM (with distinction) from the London School of Economics (2000), and a PhD in public procurement and anti-corruption law from the University of Nottingham, UK (2011). She brings a diverse perspective to anti-corruption, understanding the social and cultural nuances that hamper anti-corruption measures in especially developing countries.