Public trust and service delivery in various sectors, particularly health, is inextricably connected to each other especially in handling a pandemic such as the COVID-19. In such situations, the issue of budget and emergency procurement becomes extremely significant. The more there is an open approach to contracts and emergency budgeting, the more this will help people gain confidence in the government. To help decrease the trust deficit, on 18th May 2020, Integrity Watch organized a two-hour webinar to facilitate discussions on increasing transparency and accountability in the budget-making and procurement processes related to the Covid-19 virus and also on the lack of people’s trust in the government and to explore ways to raise it through open budgeting and contracting.
Six speakers from various government departments and civil society organizations, who are directly involved in budgeting and procurement issues especially during the Covid-19 virus outbreak, participated in this discussion. Participants included, Sayed Ikram Afzali, Integrity Watch’s Executive Director; Abdul Wahid Majrooh, Deputy Minister of Public Health; Elham Omar Hotaki, General Director of the National Procurement Authority (NPA); Masooda Karokhi, Member of Parliament; Sayed Masood Hashimi, Senior Advisor to the Budget Director General at Ministry of Finance; and Ezatullah Adib, Integrity Watch’s Head of Research.
Mr. Afzali, Integrity Watch’s Executive Director said, “Our surveys show that over 80 percent of the interviewees did not trust the services offered by the government. We live in an environment where false information is being spread and the level of public trust is quite low while we are faced with a dangerous virus to control. The situation could spiral completely out of control if necessary, measures are not taken to restore public trust. Open budgeting and open contracting could help restore the public trust so the government and the public can fight the pandemic together. The pandemic should not be used as an excuse to allow corruption and misuse of public funds”
Mr. Hotaki, NPA Director General, stated, “From the beginning of this pandemic and when the issue of transfers of money to the provinces was raised, our main emphasis has been on monitoring and how transparency and accountability could be ensured. However, the government departments involved in this process have complained about the slowness of the procurement processes and have stated that with such a process, we cannot properly combat this pandemic. We asked them to propose their solution to make the process easier. We then developed guidelines called “Emergency Procurement Guidelines to Prevent the Outbreak of Coronavirus in the Country” in which, according to the document, they can process a procurement contract in about two days.”
He continued, “The guidelines at the suggestion of relevant government departments was later modified. This resulted in increasing the provinces’ authority in retail purchasing and the processing of contracts. For instance, in the past if contracts were likely to cost between 20 and 100 million Afghanis, crossed this ceiling, then they had to refer them to the NPA. However, now this authority is with the provincial governments and their team. The government’s leadership took this into account and it was sent to the cabinet for their approval where it was also approved there. After that, the NPA did not participate in provincial projects.”
Mr. Majrooh, Deputy Minister of Public Health, insisted, “Transparency must be one of the most important components in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. The other thing is effectiveness with limited resources, while the whole world is facing such a huge problem and resources are limited, the effectiveness of budget spending should be considered as a key principle.”
Mr. Hashimi, Senior Advisor to the Budget Director General, stated, “After the first case of COVID-19 virus was recorded in Herat Province, the Government of Afghanistan reacted immediately, and set up the Emergency Committee under the chairmanship of the President. The main decision after several meetings in this regard was the transfer of funds to the provinces as soon as possible, so that the resources would be available to them. In this regard, USD 15 million was transferred to the Ministry of Public Health and the provinces, and another 10 million was reserved. Despite the problems faced by the Ministry and the large budget cuts, it tried to respond positively to these needs, and to play its role in fighting the virus.”
MP, Ms. Karokhi, said, “The Afghanistan National Budget has had the lowest annual allocation for health service. The balance is paid by donors and the international community directly to NGOs. In most cases these NGOs belong to senior MoPH officials. The services of these NGOs are by no means sufficient and satisfactory to the people. As a result of huge corruption and nepotism, donors’ money is wasted in different ways by these NGOs.” She asked for ensuring transparency and accountability in the COVID-19 budgeting and expenditure.
Finally, the webinar ended with responses to the questions from the audience. To watch the full discussion which took place in local languages please visit Integrity Watch’s YouTube and Facebook pages, at