By Caroline Wachtell and Brittany Kouroupas
The World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment (OSD) successfully concluded a series of virtual webinars in September and October 2020 as part of the Fifth International Debarment Colloquium. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced OSD to adapt this year’s Colloquium to a new virtual format, the array of speakers and attendees from around the world was impressive and reveals that these conversations remain vital to global anti-corruption efforts.
OSD started the Colloquium series in 2012 as a one-day in-person event at the World Bank Group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Over the years, the Colloquium has expanded in both size and scope, but the goal remains to share knowledge, facilitate learning, and encourage collaboration among practitioners and experts in anti-corruption, public procurement, and debarment.
In light of the challenges brought by COVID-19, this year’s Colloquium took on a new virtual format. The Colloquium began with a written introductory statement from Mr. Shaolin Yang, the Managing Director and WBG Chief Administrative Officer, who emphasized the importance of continuing to learn from global colleagues and partners even during times of crises and disruption.
To that end, each virtual roundtable brought together an average of 200 attendees – some of whom might not have been able to attend an in-person event – from multilateral agencies, governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and academia. Expanding the normal one-day Colloquium into a series of weekly webinars also allowed for a wider range of speakers and provided more flexibility for participants to select their topics of interest.
This year’s Colloquium continued exploring the trends and developments discussed at the Fourth Colloquium in 2017 and the Third Colloquium in 2015, both of which examined the potential for global harmonization in the context of suspension and debarment systems, the effectiveness of the broader anti-corruption framework, and forward-looking discussions on how to improve debarment systems.
The Fifth Colloquium expanded on these discussions by comparing a diverse range of ways that suspension and debarment systems are used to fight against misconduct, manage performance- and capacity-based risks, promote integrity, and encourage transparency and competition. With speakers from more than ten countries representing the private sector, governments, multilateral organizations, and academia, each roundtable focused on a particular trend within the debarment community.
A constant theme that emerged was the diversity of systems and a broad agreement that debarment is not a one-size-fits-all remedy. Debarment has its place, but up-front due diligence, commercial and contractual clauses, and other available remedies are all also important considerations.
In the first roundtable, speakers compared a diverse array of debarment systems from national public procurement systems, international financial institutions, state-owned enterprises, and investment funds. The lack of harmonization across these systems can lead to challenges – but also opportunities – whenever one system looks to another.
The speakers at the second roundtable expanded on those challenges and examined the importance of transparency and information sharing. Cross-debarments and the mutual recognition of debarment decisions across systems are effective tools but can have severe repercussions if used without a critical understanding of their underlying contextual backgrounds.
The third roundtable examined the diversity of debarment grounds beyond traditional integrity-based offenses like fraud and corruption. The speakers noted that many systems view debarment as a business decision designed to not only ensure integrity but also mitigate risk and, potentially, promote policy goals. The latter reflects a growing trend in public procurement to consider environmental sustainability (a large focus in Europe at the moment), past performance, and other qualification criteria in any procurement decision.
At the same time, the broader use of debarment grounds should be carefully balanced against other considerations. The speakers noted that any particular imposition of debarment can often be highly contextual, particularly when the underlying grounds, like poor past performance, are defined differently across jurisdictions.
The fourth roundtable examined debarment within the context of competition law and the growing collaboration between public procurement entities and competition authorities. Debarment is understandably viewed by some as an anti-competitive remedy – by definition, debarment involves declaring a supplier ineligible to participate in a monopsonic market.
But others argue that debarment can actually help level the playing field by eliminating corrupt actors engaged in anti-competitive behavior. Per this view, debarment can allow for more competition by driving out the bad apples from the marketplace.
The fifth roundtable closed out the Colloquium by discussing debarment in the context of multilateral development banks’ private sector financing operations. While most debarments occur within traditional public procurement systems, the private sector is a unique example of how the availability of other remedies – like up-front due diligence on potential business partners and contractual remedies – can potentially reduce the need to resort to debarment to protect the organization’s interest in most cases of misconduct.
Overall, the Fifth International Debarment Colloquium demonstrated the significance of the global fight against fraud and corruption and the importance of continuing to learn from our global colleagues and partners. The popularity of the Colloquium reflects the World Bank Group’s continued efforts to learn from others to improve the effectiveness and fairness of its own sanctions system.
OSD would like to thank its partners and sponsors, World Bank Group senior management for its support, and the panelists and attendees who made this year’s Colloquium a success.
Recordings of all five roundtables can be found on the Colloquium’s website.
Caroline Wachtell is Program Assistant and Brittany Kouroupas is a legal intern in the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.