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From aspiration to action in Africa

South Africa is a special country for me and open contracting. It is where, in 2012, we held the first global meeting of open contracting, and where we returned last week for the OGP Regional Summit.

In the international development community we are often guilty of overselling the importance of conferences, but that first open contracting meeting in Johannesburg was truly transformative for our Partnership. Why?

At that meeting, over 100 stakeholders from all over the world co-designed the fundamentals of the open contracting agenda that we are all still collectively pursuing today: We decided to develop a set of global open contracting principles that emphasize disclosure and the use of procurement data. We began to develop a technical standard. And we agreed to move the coordination function of the Partnership from the World Bank to an independent team to be more agile, open and engaging. Open contracting wasn’t only an issue for poor countries at the core of the Bank’s mission – we all agreed that open contracting was global aspiration.

I still believe it is remarkable that a global effort has not only been built on so much collaborative design, but has also delivered on many of the promises made in Johannesburg in 2012. After all, we now have the Open Contracting Data Standard and we have moved the Partnership out of the World Bank. Most importantly, the community that joined us at the global meeting has become the backbone of open contracting. Participants from Ukraine to Uganda and the UK are now implementing open contracting in their countries.

Another auspicious connection between South Africa last week and open contracting is that the recent Summit in Cape Town was the first large public event that Sanjay Pradhan chaired as the new CEO of the OGP. Sanjay, who was my “big boss” at the World Bank (working at a mega institution like the Bank, I had several managers), was one of the masterminds behind the co-creation of open contracting as, what he called it, a ‘transformative global movement’.

So, at the OGP Regional Summit last week, we had a mini reunion of open contracting champions in Africa. There was definitely a buzz around open contracting. One of my favorite moments was when billionaire-deal-maker-turned-philanthropist Mo Ibrahim dispelled the myth of commercially sensitive information in procurement. He said:

“There are no trade secrets in public contracts.” 

“Winning business through open contracting process is not altruism, it’s good business.”

This was only topped by Kenneth Brown, Chief Procurement Officer in South Africa dismissed so-called “unavoidable corruption” in procurement – often an excuse for inaction by businesses or governments because corruption is inevitable and no system is perfect – as “crap.” He told us straight: “We need to deal with this evil [corruption] by tackling it head on.”

My favorite session that really resonated with me was that on infomediaries and open contracting data. Infomediaries is a term used by our good friends at Hivos organizations and individuals that are able to digests and share complex information and data such as that on public contracting and make it accessible to others to speak to their concerns and to advocate for change. We had no panelists; no long speeches; simply practitioners across Africa connecting and sharing with practitioners, helping each other to tackle some of the challenges that come with advancing disclosure and engagement in public procurement. Open contracting clearly has some major obstacles to overcome in Africa, as we highlighted in a brief that we prepared for the Summit. But are most excited of the day-to-day work of these practitioners:

Government representatives from a range of countries, such as Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone, showed enthusiasm for open contracting at the Summit, and we are committed to support them in implementing reforms. As Sanjay Pradhan highlighted during his opening remarks at the Summit’s civil society day, what really matters is implementation. We have to count actions that impact citizens on the ground, not promises made.

That is exactly what we at the Open Contracting Partnership will strive to do. We want to support our friends and partners in Africa and around the world to turn their aspirations into actions.

Four years from now, I hope we will have another Africa reunion of open government and open contracting champions, where we will be able to celebrate, not only promises, but also results.

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