Open budgeting and contracting as trust-building vehicles in the time of COVID-19

Volunteers met with their community to provide them feedback about the results of health facilities monitoring in Jalalabad in April 2020. Photo credit: Integrity Watch

Sayed Ikram Afzali | @SIAfzali 
Executive Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan

As Afghanistan is juggling to deal with multiple threats including insecurity and political uncertainty following elections in 2019 and the pandemic corruption, it has to keep its head above the water while fighting COVID-19. As an aid-dependent country, Afghanistan has to raise funds to meet not only the growing demand for health services and equipment especially personal protection equipment (PPE), testing kits and ventilators, it also has to feed a growing number of people who were already living under the poverty line. However, both donor and public trust are at a very low level due to the prevalence of corruption making it very difficult for the Afghan Government to raise the funds needed and to spend the resources in a satisfactory manner. There are already wide-spread allegations of waste, mismanagement and corruption in handling the COVID-19 situation including purchasing of personal protection equipment and materials at exorbitant rates, the supply of substandard materials such as hand sanitizers and lack of access to personal protection equipment in many of the hospitals and health centers we have surveyed. Nevertheless, it is not a completely hopeless situation. The government can take certain measures to address the trust deficit with the donors and the public while raising, allocating, and spending the funds needed to tackle COVID-19 in the country. Open budgeting and open contracting (including transparency and public participation) could greatly assist the government to overcome the situation.
According to the recently published Open Budget Survey (OBS) results, Afghanistan only provides limited budget information to its citizens. The overall budget transparency score of Afghanistan is 50 out of 100 while the public participation score is 15 out of 100 and the oversight score is 31 out of 100. While the scores did not improve in the last two years, there are many low-hanging fruits that the Afghan Government can pick to increase budget transparency. This includes publishing budget documents in a timely manner such as the pre-budget statement which the government produced last year but did not publish on time. In addition, providing more details in budget documents and reports and allowing civil society and the public to participate in the budget-making process could turn the budgeting process into a trust-building vehicle. These reforms can go hand in hand while fighting the COVID-19 outbreak as the government can use budget transparency to build trust in these times of the COVID-19 crisis. Since the government is planning to amend this year’s budget in response to the COVID-19 situation, it should publish the proposed amendments before they are finalized to enable citizens and civil society groups to engage in a meaningful discussion with the government. The government should gather inputs from civil society and other stakeholders for these amendments, especially regarding the health sector because improving the health system is a top priority at the moment. Data generated by independent sources such as civil society should be used to prioritize spending in the health sector. For instance, data from the Integrity Watch’s study to assess the quality of health services in more than 50 hospitals and a survey of 1000 health centers could be used in the allocation of funds based on the needs identified through these studies. In addition, data generated through programs such as the Citizens Charter by the Afghan Government partners and the Community-Based Monitoring of health centers by Integrity Watch, which ensure public participation through monitoring of health services could be used to allocate resources based on the public identification of needs in specific health centers.
Afghanistan has made great strides in improving transparency around public procurement. However, there are still many steps that need to be taken such as initiating e-procurement and improving publishing contract data based on Open Contracting Data Standards. More specifically to the COVID-19 situation, transparency and accountability around emergency procurement has to increase taking into account civil society’s recommendations around this issue. The government should take the following actions:

 

  • Emergency procurement should be minimized to only necessary situations and when such decisions are made, they should be justified, recorded and publicized to create transparency and accountability around such decisions.
  • The government should publish emergency procurement data through its procurement portal AGEOPS in a timely manner including all emergency procurements made by the provincial governments.
  • When publishing data, full publication should be the norm including publishing all documents such as price quotations, procurement decisions including justification for those decisions, invoices, prices, type and quality of goods, and receipts.
  • Carry out public audits of emergency funds and emergency procurement by the Supreme Audit Office, engaging civil society and the public in the audit process.
  • Enable civil society groups and journalists’ participation through the provision of timely and detailed information and opportunities for meaningful participation in monitoring emergency procurement and carrying out social audits of such expenditures.