Procurement is big business. It consists of almost half of the expenditures in most organizations, including governments, particularly their development spending. Good procurement practices are therefore at the core of good development practice. This was the key message discussed at the Second South Asia Regional Procurement Conference held in Islamabad over the past three days.
The conference, hosted by the Federal Public Procurement Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (PPRA), and co‐sponsored by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank brought together nearly 100 procurement officials from around the region along with globally-renowned experts in the field. It served as a follow up to the first such meeting held in Kathmandu in April 2011.
Over the three days, the participants shared their knowledge, experiences, and good practices about public procurement, learning about each other’s successes and challenges. The theme this year was, ‘Moving from Compliance to Performance’, in recognition that procurement should not just be about following rules but using them to achieve development results, removing the disconnect between existing processes and actual practice at the local level.
The conference was inaugurated by the President of Pakistan, Mamnoon Hussain, who called for the opening of a South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) procurement office in Islamabad, and also launched procurementlearning.org, the world’s first ever online course on procurement, offering both a certificate and professional diploma, for free.
Day one saw the participants hearing from global experts on procurement, with case studies from the United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand, as well as hearing from senior procurement officers in the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank. On day two, participants from the region made presentations on their respective countries, including progress on their procurement reform programs, and the last day, they worked together to come up with an action plan in how to implement what they learned and creating a Regional Action Plan.
With 10 million public servants involved in procurement in South Asia, the importance of good procurement to achieve development results is essential. The field is also very diverse, with transactions ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of millions of dollars, and projects as varied as underground metro construction to improving access to justice for women. This diversity was illustrated in the participants, who represented institutions varying from highway authorities to public universities. The challenges this presents to procurement officials were discussed, such as questions of whether governments should buy like a business, buy to support broader public policy (e.g. buy from local producers), or buy to ensure transparency. Each has different performance metrics and requires different priorities.
Another common message heard was the importance of capacity building for procurement officials. With such large numbers, of money, of people, and of types of procurement, involved, procurement needs to become professionalized, especially for good governance and development effectiveness. “Ending extreme poverty is achievable only if due importance is given to optimum utilization of every penny spent,” Chris Browne, Chief Procurement Officer of the World Bank said in his presentation.
This recognition is occurring now, both regionally and globally. Governments and development agencies have undertaken procurement reforms, with some even appointing Cabinet-level positions for heading the processes, a major change from two decades ago when procurement was being run by “enthusiastic amateurs.” All South Asian countries have reformed and improved their public procurement legislative, regulatory and institutional frameworks, with focus on compliance. There is also increasing interaction among regional countries for cooperation on different aspects of public procurement. The network formed by this conference will further this.
As participants now go back to their home countries, they will hope to implement their learning into spending their public’s money more effectively and raising more awareness on the importance of procurement to improving development. As participants discussed and reinforced over the past few days, better procurement leads to saved lives, better and quicker services, and it saves public money.
For details and conference materials, including presentations, please see the conference website.