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Public Procurement & Concession Commission: A Critical Tool for Nation Building or a Toothless Bull Dog?

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International Perspective
Public procurement is the process through which hard-earned taxpayers’ monies are used to better the lives of its citizens. Contemporary public procurement has gone beyond just buying goods, works, and services. Developed countries like the France, Singapore and the United Kingdom (UK), for example, are now using public procurement to mitigate climate change, fight corruption, bribery, human trafficking, child labor, etc.

A new public procurement trend that has helped to continuously improve nations in Europe is their ability to constantly review their laws and incorporate sustainable procurement objectives. Sustainable procurement addresses three critical areas of national development: (i) social inclusion (e.g. people with disabilities/disadvantaged groups), (ii) environmental considerations and (iii) improving economic conditions.

Within the European Union (EU) public procurement regime, Article 18(2) 2014 Directive clearly mandates contracting authorities to incorporate sustainable considerations in their procurement practices. For example, a public entity can award contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); reserve contracts for firms whose businesses primary focus is supporting people with disabilities. Developed countries around the world with public procurement best practice do not depend on grants or aids to maintain their forward match to visible improvements. Those developed countries use hard-earned TAXES. It is no magic! According to the Institute for Government, the UK spends approximately 284 billion euros annually on procuring goods, works, and services. That money doesn’t come from any donor partners or philanthropist, but citizens themselves. Value for money is obtained in the EU as a result of clear public procurement guidelines and strong enforcement mechanisms. No law will be one hundred percent perfect, that is why there are provisions for amendments. However, in terms of international best practice for public procurement, the EU and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), World Bank, etc. are some of the instruments that are used for procurement reforms around the world.

Public Procurement: The Liberian Scenario
The need to strengthen public procurement in Liberia cannot be overemphasized. Public procurement in Liberia accounts for the largest portion of the country national budget (approximately sixty percent – 60%). Prior to the establishment of the Public Procurement & Concessions Commission in 2005, public procurement was done solely by the General Services Agency of Liberia. This single oversight did not yield the needed reforms in the public financial management sector of Liberia. Major donors like the World Bank at the time could not invest in Liberia due to lack of best practice to public procurement standards.

The Government of Liberia saw the gaps and the lack of trained professionals to handle public procurement, initiated a number of procurement training interventions, including the Intensive Procurement Training Program (IPTP); the amendment and restatement of the Public Procurement and Concessions Act of 2005; strengthening of the Public Financial Management Laws, among others.

The Intensive Procurement Training School is run through the aegis of the World Bank and other partners. I was fortunate to be one of many Liberians who benefited from the one-year intensive procurement training. IPTP was on steady progress till KehleboeGongloe took the helm of leadership and subsequently decided to drive the prestigious institution (the Financial Management Training Program & IPTP) into reversed mode. Mr. Gongloe who probably did not understand how donor funding works decided to cut down cost at the demise of the most talk about (read, read & read, read) FMTP/IPTP. The one- and two-years professional training is so challenging that students are given good learning conditions to thrive. For example, laptops, accessing to 24 hrs internet services, stake of the art classrooms, monthly stipend to complement the full-time study, among others. Sadly, the last batch of final students (batch 6) are currently being trained and the school will be officially turned over to the University of Liberia (UL) to manage. UL, in my opinion, is not prepared to fully take over IPTP in the absence of donor funding. Arguably, the glorious days of IPTP can be attributed to batches 1 – 4. Thanks to AagonTingba, Sylvia Squire and others for their professional guidance and leadership.

Liberia had to go through public procurement reforms due to many reasons. Top on the list was the country desire to use donor funding. World Bank and African Development Bank (AFDB) donor funding are subject to straight procurement guidelines that borrowing countries need to follow with caution. Public procurement reforms are not only necessary for donor funding, but also for the onward development of a country. Procurement reforms go beyond just having laws on the book. Accordingly, there are critical success factors associated with reforms: (i) are the laws on the book independent and enforceable? (ii) are there people with integrity running those institutions (like PPCC and contract awarding bodies)?

One of the reasons why the EU looks like a shining beacon (procurement wise) is because of its strong public procurement enforcement mechanisms. There are clear reporting standards and public officials are answerable and accountable to the people they serve. Contrariwise, many public officials in Liberia see procurement procedures as a waste of time. What those officials fail to realize is that they are not implementing private procurement; instead, public procurement which has to do with using hard-earned taxpayers’ money. Even in the private sector, there are standard operating procurement procedures.
PPCC Under James Dorbor “The Integrity Idol” Jallah
Dorbor ‘The Integrity Idol’ has left a high standard at PPCC. ‘Skip’, as he is affectionately called, served this integrity agency for four years. During his leadership at PPCC Dorbor laid a solid foundation that the new Executive Director can build on. In my opinion, Dorbor’s strength was building and empowering a professional team at PPCC. ‘The first rule of accessing the intelligence of a leader is to look at the caliber of people around him’. A Japanese proverb says, “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends”. Mr. Jallah always told public procurement officials in almost all his speeches to keep their glass clean. Meaning procurement practitioners should walk with integrity. My last interaction with ‘Skip’ was at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in August 2018. I had gone to explain some critical Concessions my entity was implementing at the time and Dorbor was called to corroborate some of the information I provided as lead procurement person at the time. I am an FMTP/IPTP trained and as such, I had read PPCC guidelines from cover to cover. It was my walking stick.

My few interactions with Dorbor showed his leadership abilities and clever way of answering difficult questions. If ‘Skip’ was placed in a difficult compromising position, he would explain the laws in simplest terms using Liberian ‘koloqua’ and sometimes rhetorically rephrasing the question to the public official like this (speaking slowly): ‘This is what the law says…and if we don’t follow what is written, these are some of the bad things that can happen…hospitals might not get the needed drugs, roads are likely not being built correctly due to ‘kro-kro-gee’ contracts…do you want us to bend the laws?’ However, if the public official was stubborn, Dorbor would not argue further, but quietly goes to his office and tells his team to do the right thing. I term this as the silent bulldog approach to following public procurement reform. Dorbor had intelligently and respectfully shown the public official the sign: ‘Beware of Bull Dog’. If the public servant using taxpayers’ money refuses to listen out of greed and disregard for the rule of law, Dorbor ‘The Integrity 2018 Idol’ had no option but to literally bite. I can recall during the second tenure of former president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf when lawmakers took brand new vehicles from suppliers (without going through a transparent procedure) and wanted the government to pay, Dorbor stood his grounds and said once there was no competitive bidding the vehicles should be returned or paid for by the honorable lawbreakers… oooh sorry, lawmakers.

Public Procurement Under the Pro-Poor Government
Governments around the world are using effective procurement reforms to strengthen public financial management. A war-ravished country like Afghanistan that is still recovering from the scars of war and terrorism, for example, is becoming a shining example in terms of public procurement reforms. Afghanistan’s current president, Ashraf Ghani, is the torchbearer of the country public procurement reform agenda. President Ghani sees public procurement as the primary tool for developing a country destroyed by war. Afghan is currently training civil servants to replace unqualified officials in the implementation of procurement practices. I had the privilege (exactly three weeks ago) of meeting Ahmad Shah Naqshbandi, Deputy Operation and Resources Director, including other top Afghan public procurement officials in the UK. Our conversations clearly show the tremendous gains Afghanistan is making in supporting local business and promoting development. Currently, President Ghani focuses on one objective: USING PUBLIC PROCUREMENT TO FIGHT CORRUPTION. For public procurement to be used as a developmental tool, the government must see it as such and the president must take the lead. Most times those who engage in corruption work at the will and pleasure of the president. So, if public officials see the president consistently taking the lead in promoting public procurement, it serves as a caveat to those who might want to disregard the procurement laws.

Pro-Poor Government: The new government could rely on transparent public procurement processes to obtain the necessary development goals that they want to achieve. Using the Afghan’s government approach, President Weah could achieve more if the fundamental principles of procurement (integrity, accountability transparency, effective competition, best value for money, etc.) are adhered to without coercion or outside influence from top public officials. Liberia’s public procurement budget accounts for approximately sixty percent (60%) of the country national budget. This is a huge amount that can achieve so much if the right policy objectives are pursued. To be honest, no public procurement goals can be achieved without adequate political support. From the United States to Great Britain and places where public procurement meets international best practice, strategic political support is key to maintaining the rule of law and fostering developmental goals to achieve value for money. President George ‘TawklonGbegugbehMannehForky’ Oppong Weah it is never too late to do the right thing. Public officials who work at your will and pleasure have no right to squander hard earned taxes. Just set one good example like President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone did and the rest of the other public officials will fall in line. For the motherland to progress, it requires a radical president.

Radical in the sense of doing the right things and dismissing people and asking for restitution if necessary. Mr. President if you close your eyes while public officials steal in broad daylight posterity will judge you! How do you want to be remembered? Depleted Central Bank Account? 25 million vanished in thin air with no trace or accountability?

Advice to the Newly Appointed Executive Director (ED)
Mrs. JargbeRoselineKowo has come to the new post with lots of experience to move the integrity institution to another level. However, that depends on whether she has thicker skin than her predecessor. To sustain the legacy of the old torchbearer, make sure to have your letter of resignation well written like Dorbor ‘The Integrity’ Jallah. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Skip’ was never an angel, but there were certain fundamental procurement principles he would never compromise. The only thing you will need to insert if you are faced with the decision of doing the wrong thing is the date on your prepared resignation letter.

On the day of her official induction into office (April 5, 2019), I read countless of criticism already about how you would succumb to the whims and caprices of the new regime; and that your husband (Janga Augustus Kowo) is the current Comptroller and Account General of Liberia, among others. I think it is too early to join the bandwagon of criticisms. Article 59(4) of the PPCC Act states that bids submitted during a procurement process have to remain valid during the stipulated period (usually 90 days). In a similar manner thereto, I reserve my professional comments for now till after 90 days. However, I might speak to that in my next article.

Madam ED this is the time to proof your critics right or wrong. The future of succeeding generation rest on the DECISIONS you will make. Remember the decisions you take in keeping with the laws can either enhance Liberia’s healthcare delivery or help crumble to its already broken kneels; it can either enrich the already privileged and leave many Liberians impoverished due to shady procurement or Concessions deals. Kids in my village (‘Gbanju’, Lofa County) who have never seen asphalt pavement (‘kota road’) could fulfill their dream of seeing one through the decisions you will take. Until you prove yourself others, I trust your ability to do the right thing, or you can choose to be a TOOTHLESS BULL DOG…fearful but powerless. Posterity will judge you based on the decisions you make!
My next article will look at how public procurement can be used to fight CORRUPTION.

About the Writer:
Kerkula G. Mulbah is a public procurement and Concessions specialist. He holds Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication and Political Science (Hon); Post Graduate Diploma in Public Procurement Management (High Distinction), MPA (*Candidate) and currently a 2018/2019 Chevening Scholar pursuing Masters (LLM) in Public Procurement Law & Strategy at Bangor University, United Kingdom. He’s also a motivational speaker and youth leader. He can be reached via email: kerk2040@gmail.comBy Kerkula G. Mulbah

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