Friday, 3 February, 2023
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OPINION

Fighting Corruption In Time Of Pandemic



Mukti Rijal

A parliamentary committee looking after the state affairs and governance issues advised the government, the other day to step up vigilance against the risks of corruption and irregularities at this critical time of pandemic surge. Although the needs shall arise to divert and transfer resources from the general development coffers to fund the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, it gives rise to very possibility of significant risks of corruption and massive irregularities. This has been illustrated in our own cases during this time last year when medical accessories and kit procurement related transactions had been suspected of massive irregularities and debated in the parliament.
Similarly, local governments have not been exempt from the allegation of irregularities and misuse of resources even though they are appreciated and lauded for the quick and prompt response in handling coronavirus infection through relief, accommodation and recovery support.

Veracity of figures
Though some local governments have disclosed the details of the expenditures ascribed to the measures undertaken to fight COVID-19 surge, the veracity and authenticity of figures have been contested and challenged. The Auditor General’s report has also raised the issues of the misappropriations and irregularities of the fund attributed to the expenditure incurred to fight the contagion at the federal, provincial and local levels.
The issues of corruption and irregularities have been reported to be serious in both developed and developing countries as massive resources have been mobilised to respond to the health and economic recovery crises. This is especially due to the fact that many corruption prevention and enforcement mechanisms, according to the World Justice Project report 2020, are suspended due to the emergency of the challenges to meet the expediency of the situation.
The corruption risk is a rule of law problem in itself. Anti-corruption laws, regulations, and best practices provide guidance for taking swift action against those found guilty of irregularities and massive fraud to squander the resources. However, despite more than two decades of increasingly robust global efforts to combat corruption, including through the UN Convention Against Corruption, and a myriad of national and regional enforcement mechanisms, corruption remains a persistent rule of law problem in every region in the world.
As is evident at this time of the pandemic crisis, corruption has become particularly acute problem in the public health sector, affecting both the quality and quantity of healthcare. The World Justice Project surveys public health professionals in each country it studies, questioning them about the prevalence of bribery and other forms of corruption in the licensing of medical professionals and facilities, distribution of medical supplies, and provision of health services.
In its survey, the project asked public health professionals in 126 countries to estimate the percentage of public funds allocated toward healthcare expenditures that is illegally diverted away from its intended target towards other ends. Respondents' average estimate of funds illegally diverted is 29 per cent.
Massive resources are being rushed to address both the health crisis and its economic side effects, while procurement oversight and enforcement efforts are relaxed or diminished by the exigencies of the crisis. According to the report, for example, in Italy, when it came to light that a public contract for 32 million face masks was awarded to an agricultural company that specialises in high-tech greenhouses, the responsible agency annulled the contract and initiated an investigation. As citizens, businesses, and governments scramble to source critical medical supplies, they face a risk of counterfeit or fraudulent transactions for which our country is not an exception.
The urgency of responding to the pandemic is cited by some as a reason to ease regulatory oversight and relax procurement rules designed to curb corruption. Ironically, as has been learned in past crises, such shortcuts will backfire as corruption undermines efforts to respond to the emergency by diverting needed resources and supplies, says the report. Experts argue, according to the World Justice report that even in an emergency anti-corruption approaches such as vetting suppliers, tracking financial flows, and publicising complaint and whistleblower mechanisms can be deployed to ensure that public funds reach their intended beneficiaries.
Other accommodations made under emergency circumstances, any derogation from best anti-corruption practice should be circumscribed in scope and duration, and, wherever possible, alternative solutions that reinforce integrity while promoting efficiency should be embraced. In the immediate term, as societies work to contain the virus while sustaining their economies, recommends the report. World Justice project report comprises the synthesis of the issues and problems encountered by several countries. According to the report, public procurement mechanisms should be relaxed only when a clearly defined urgency test is met and documented, and only to the extent necessary.
In procurements pursuant to expedited procedures, contract length and amount should be limited to what is necessary to meet immediate needs. Regardless of how expedited the process, procurements should be auditable, with considerations justifying the expedited process, supplier selection, pricing, and contracting documented in writing for subsequent review. Public procurements should be subject to vetting of suppliers for competence and any potential conflict of interest. All public contracts under emergency procedures should be promptly published openly.
Open Government Partnership and Open Contracting Partnership have published guides for procurement during the COVID-19 crisis and profiled model approaches for meeting emergency needs while safeguarding public integrity. Similar principles and approaches should apply to government distribution of emergency economic stimulus packages and support programmes for business and households suffering financial repercussions from the pandemic. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has outlined guidance and best practices in this area, drawing on standards established in the UN Convention Against Corruption.

Commitment
Nepal has already ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption and promulgated laws, including the Public Procurement Act, and established institutions to check corruption and deliver prompt services to the people in the time of crisis. These measures should be enforced to ensure that resources deployed to fight the pandemic crisis are properly utilised. The lessons from the immediate past should also guide us as how we can carry it out.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.)