Interview with INCISE Senior Research Fellow S.N. Nyeck on the Public Procurement Podcast

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Interview with INCISE (Canterbury Christ Church University) senior research fellow S.N. Nyeck on Public procurement governance in Africa. She is generally interested in the political economy of development and the role that public procurement plays in transforming institutions and societies and recently edited a book entitled Public Procurement Reform and Governance in Africa, published earlier in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.


I found your book when I was looking for new publications in public procurement and I really like that we finally have a very good volume, it’s not the first one but it’s a very good volume on public procurement in Africa. So why did you decide to edit this book and what you were trying to achieve with it?

Well the idea of this book emerged when I attended a conference in South Africa on public procurement. What struck me at the conference was that most people attending were either lawyers or practitioners to some extent of public procurement in different institutions. My background is political science but I also have some background in law. What struck me during the conversations (pause) most presentations were really about either the legal aspects or institutional aspects of public procurement reform or some of the challenges that are faced when it actually comes to implementing a reform, but by and large the conversation was very much heavily framed by legal questions and every now and then at the end of every presentation I will hear someone say “well, well done, fine, but it doesn’t work like that in practice”. Right, it doesn’t work like that in practice, it is something that I kept hearing over and over again. And I was sitting there and thinking this is really a problem of not having the many fields that are interested in public procurement reform talking to each other, right. Legal scholars don’t necessarily engage with policy or political scientists, you have people in the business side not necessarily interacting with either legal scholars and/or political scientists. So I saw the necessity really and the urgency to talk or at least to propose a framework that would create enough synergy and allow practitioners and researchers to deal with a question of governance and public procurement in the developing and middle size countries, developing world or global south, in an efficient way.

The issue here is that we are confronted with several questions. One is the issue of institutional building. In many countries this is an ongoing process, unlike developed countries. Second, we are confronted with the changes that are outcomes of reform and we are concerned also about the economic performance of reform. So in light of these concerns, in light of those debates at that conference, in light of what I know about the significant place that policy and politics really plays in any reform, in any public reform, I wanted to do something about the subject and in fact the subtitle was ‘an exploration of the law, politics, business matrix’, okay, that doesn’t necessarily appear in the final cover but that was really the intention, that was the original inception of the ideas and that is what motivated me to do or to present scholarship that is really intersectional, that shows the limitation of a one-size-fits-all approach to reform and governance of public procurement in Africa.

So the starting point for the discussion is effectively your view that a few years ago when that conference happened, which was maybe 2010, 2012?

Yeah, around that time.

That public procurement reform and governance in Africa was being analysed only from one specific perspective or one specific discipline?

Right. I think that it is not just my opinion, it is a matter of fact, okay. The impetus for reform in Africa have been concerned about global trade, okay, the idea that free trade is likely to bring more opportunities to people and government everywhere, the idea that competition is likely to bring efficiency, and the idea, really mostly arising from the experiences with government over the past twenty years or so, that there is a lot of inefficiency in government and that sometimes there might be creative ways to fulfil public missions for the benefit of the constituencies and citizens. So it is that international context that informs public procurement reform in Africa that is really, I haven’t seen one single case of substantive consultation with society, with stakeholders prior to a reform anywhere in Africa. I think it is a fair statement to say that it has been by and large a top-down model facilitated by institutions such as the World Bank to some extent by some professional organisations, but by and large this is something that in fact most people are not even aware of, you know, on average people don’t know what public procurement is about.

And I tell you what, I was speaking to a group of African scholars here in the United States and I’m talking about public procurement and the importance that it has in understanding development today and in shaping really development, and as I was talking people started leaving the room one by one. No-one had a clue what I was talking about, you know, and it seemed so obscure. Now that is not necessarily the state of knowledge in Africa, it is a global trend, but what I’m trying to say is that by and large, and one measurement really for this will be to look at what is civil society doing, in which places we see an active civil society engage in say monitoring procurement, in providing feedback, that is, you have to look really hard. Nigeria in fact is the only African country with legislation that provides for civil society and professional organisation to actually be part of public procurement processes, and again that law is on the book, doesn’t mean it works effectively. But the point here is that if we were to take governance then, right, as this multi-stakeholder approach to development, it is really striking to realise that after I would say ten/fifteen years we do not have civil society involved in this. So then the question that we can answer is who else is involved? Okay, who is driving reform? It has been done by as I said different impetus. One is to bring this idea of competition which is great, the other was a concern about bilateral and multilateral trade with the EU but also China to some extent. So those sort of sources of reform are great but what I’m trying to say is that we still have a lot to do in Africa.

The last point I’ll say a measurement really of how much governance is governance in public procurement is that as the recent book by De Mariz, Menard and Abeille shows is that the officers, the public procurement officers were not involved and were not thought of as a major constituency in designing public procurement reform, and that is a statement from a former World Bank director responsible for operations in Africa, right, what was thought of as a priority was really amending laws, changing laws, but not really giving a lot of thought in terms of capability. How do we actually engage? How do we train? How do we put resources so that we are renewing the public sector, we’re training more people, we’re encouraging civil society to be part of this, we are monitoring what is happening? And so if you take those two constituencies, the public servants themselves or public procurement officers and then civil society in general, you see almost nothing. A very weak patchwork of attempts to actually practice governance in the public procurement sector in Africa.

I was listening to you and it reminded me of an interview that I did recently with Ana Cristina Calderon Ramirez, which I’ve just published on the podcast, and she did a lot of research into South America and how actually it wasn’t the changes in the law that led to improvement in public procurement practice, for example in reducing corruption, but it was further reforms that were done afterwards, for example the creation of regulatory agencies that had higher impacts than the laws themselves. And if you think about it, okay so it may well be that Africa is just a little bit further behind the curve than South America and the Caribbean in that sense that we start with the laws and that’s where the emphasis is happen in the beginning, and then you move on to the other elements of the public procurement stack so to speak and the next one might be the creation of regulatory agencies, might be the training of officials, of improving procurement practice. But your point is well taken is that at least for a good while the emphasis is pretty much only on the legal aspects of procurement and not the practical ones?

Right. And I was saying maybe Africa is behind, I don’t think it has to be behind, right, and I think that one of the excitement that I have in studying public procurement, right, is that unlike the traditional way of understanding development challenges, public procurement really allows us to start thinking in terms of similarities as opposed to differences, right. So yes, the traditional way would be to look at what X is doing and Y is behind because Y will catch up in due time, but when I look at the United States, state level issues, I mean here in New York we just had a commission on governance in public procurement and what it was revealing were stories that are very similar to what I read in terms of corruption, in terms of networks of waste of public money. In Montreal the same, that is another commission there, the Charbonneau Commission unpacking criminal networks in the construction industry, and when you look at what is actually happening on the ground there is a lot more that we can learn from each other and this idea of perhaps one person starting and the other one catching up I think for me it is a little bit depassé, right, because the urgency, the impact is not going to wait, right, we’re not going to wait for Latin America or for Asia to do it. We say that this reform is happening and there are ways that we can contribute to inform practices and that Africa does not always have to be taking practices or theories from elsewhere. And this idea of thinking procurement as a matrix, as a law, politics, business matrix, developed in the book, is really about putting the continent at the forefront of the debate, actively contributing and giving feedback to reform and pointing to things that are not working and pointing to others that are actually working and efficient. So yes, I have no doubt that maybe in some cases some models can be replicated in Africa but in a lot of other cases I think that Africa has contributed to this debate and can contribute to this debate on its own terms. 

Speaking of the book, what were the major contributions and disciplines involved in it?

Yes. I made a decision to really have an interdisciplinary approach to this book. And one key distinction from the previous books, two that I know of on public procurement in Africa, is that political scientist, policymakers, legal scholars, public procurement practitioners, but also really civil society contributes to the debate here. And I think that the fact that we rarely hear from practitioners and that we haven’t started really paying attention to civil society is something that this book sticks to correct. So disciplines as diverse as they can be, myself as I say I’m a political scientist trained in the political economy of development, but you will find professors of accounting and strategic management, you will find legal scholars, people coming from quantities surveying, sciences, people working at the UN and governance, and from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Botswana etc.

There is a quote in the book that I quite like from your introduction and it reads “it also however acknowledges the symbiotic relation between formal institutions, society, culture and politics, as important variables that add to our understanding of what works and what does not yet in public procurement”. This is a quote from your introduction. So in the end what goes into procurement in your view?

What goes into procurement is not just finite transactions, okay. So a transactional approach, institutional approach or economic approach to procurement will tend to maybe emphasise good works at finite deliveries or needs or supplies that go through a procurement. But values go into procurement, right, and power goes into procurement. These are tangible and important assets that we should also be paying attention to.

Let me maybe illustrate what I’m trying to say here with an example coming from South Sudan. I had a privilege to be in the country meeting with governors in 2013 prior to the sacking of the vice president leading to the current war. And I attended a meeting where governors from different provinces were talking about, you know, what is working and what is not, and this particular governor told a story of a contractor who secured a contract from Juba and it was about land and exploiting land for commercial purposes, except he never went to the place himself and he never interacted with the populations there. So he arrives with a contract, legal contract, legal transaction, just to find that the actual land is a cemetery that has been there for a long time, and he comes in with his bulldozers, you know, trying to destroy everything because “hey I have a legal document, right, and I’m supposed to be doing this”. So right there the issue is not about the legality of the transaction, there is something else going on there and we have not paid attention to these sort of important issues.

The other example that is raised, and this is coming from the book, there is a chapter there really raising the question why African government sign bad contracts, right. And sometimes we are caught up in the legality as manifest in law and written documents but this chapter does, is to really argue that the pre-award period is just as important as the award and the post-award period, right, and the contributors really show that a lot of corruption happened during the pre-award period. And therefore it’s not necessarily about legal or not legal, a different question of just human interaction, right, how they happen, what goes into it. And by the way these are not questions that are limited again to Africa, here in the United States we’re talking about the influence of money in elections and kickbacks tied to government contracts here and there, right, so we’re talking about how things such as the political process, how things such as democracy can be indirectly impacted by what happens in public procurement regardless of its legality. Other works coming from Europe, actually there is a fantastic book by Anna Maria LaChimiatalking about tide aid and development procurement in the framework of the EU and WTO laws, so this idea of tide aid, it is really about something else. It’s about value creation, it’s not just about what goes into the transaction, right, it’s about conditionality and the fact that terms of agreement are not necessarily working or supposed to be working for some parties.

So what goes into this from all of these examples is that a finite’s good but they are also about political goods, they are about economic goods, and this relationship should be thought of really carefully especially when we’re talking about development, in the context of development. So formality is great, formal institutions are absolutely needed but society matters, okay, culture matters, politics matter, human rights matter. And that is these are substantive questions of equality, of quality of society when the government is no longer the source or the sole source that provides the works, good and services that we need as political entities.

And you think that those problems and issues that you’ve highlighted and mentioned are they transversal to the continent or they are more prevalent in certain countries in comparison with others?

The issues that I’m mentioning here are global issues, and as I previously said public procurement is really, allows us to look at, or at least encourages us to approach comparative analysis in different ways. So the question of civil society involvement and its capability of involvement is one that is still very much part of a conversation in the United States, right. The question of the future of democracy, given government outsourcing, is a global conversation. Yes, certainly countries are different but I do not think that these problems are Nigerian problems or Senegalese problems or South Africans problems. And because in part the impetus to reform public procurement is a global one, a lot of what is happening is really happening at the global level and then influencing the ways in which different countries choose to be part of the conversation or not. The question of gender equality for example in public procurement is one that I see coming out of the works in places such as England, right, and that is an issue on the continent. It is not a Senegalese issue, it is not a Cameroonian issue, right. So here I want to say that the substantive when we move from the traditional frames of comparison, is it a French colony, ex-colony, is it a British ex-colony or Portuguese ex-colony? To look at laws as part of a global trend, a global movement, a global movement that harmonises practice and trade practices, and then looking at what are the substantive impact of these laws? What are the substantive impact on institutions? What are the substantive impact on values and society? These become issues that make us look alike. And that is my take on understanding, studying public procurement reforms. They are global problems, they are also in Africa as elsewhere.

One final question. What is next for you? What are your future steps in research terms?

I would like to in my future work tackle a little bit more substantive questions such as human rights in public procurement, gender equality in public procurement and there is not much done also in that area. So I am interested in also bringing the experience and conversations from Francophone countries to the debate. So in terms of my perhaps regional focus I would like to do a little bit more work in Francophone Africa. In terms of my substantive engagement I would like to take government, or engage governance for what it is looking at the economic impacts of reform on the quality of life, the impact on relationships, you know, gender equality is one thing that I care about, but also impact on the environment. So these are generally speaking areas that I’ll be happy to explore within the next couple of years or so.

I think that’s a very interesting research plan that you have and one that I would like to know more as you go on. Thank you very much for coming. 

Thank you very much for having me.


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