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2022 Open Contracting Champion: Didar Smagulov

What is the most important role open contracting plays in the fight against corruption?

Open contracting is a crucial element in fighting corruption in our country. It is related to the fact that one out of every five corruption crimes is committed in the field of public procurement. In general, we can say that almost every corruption crime in our country has its origins in the process of allocation of budgetary funds. Given that the share of public procurement in Kazakhstan’s budget expenditures is about 30%, open contracting is key to preventing corruption. The efficiency and effectiveness of public procurement directly affect the quality of citizens’ lives. It is especially the case for rural areas. Which school children attend, the quality of the water people drink, where they live, and what kind of medical facilities they can access, all of it depends on how well is public procurement managed. As for open contracting, it allows us oversight over whether there is a conflict of interest, whether the process is fair, whether all market players have equal access to participation, etc. With this information, we can minimize corruption risks and ensure the fairness of contracts.

What has been your proudest moment or achievement in building accountability or transparency into government?

We are proud of getting things done properly. For example, we’ve identified construction embezzlement: there was a hockey court on paper and nothing in reality. We reported this to audit and law enforcement authorities, conducted the necessary examinations to support our allegations, and created a stir in the media. As a result, the hockey court was built, stolen money was refunded, and corrupt actors were brought to liability. Overall, we have prevented more than $42 million in inefficient public spending on more than 1000 “suspicious” procurements. This year alone, 124 persons were brought to disciplinary responsibility, and 491 to administrative. Also, 42 criminal cases were initiated based on our findings. As you can see, we don’t just complain, we seek justice and claim compensation for damages caused by offenses. We demonstrate by our own example that changes are both necessary and possible, our voices matter and must be heard. So, I’m proud that we can empower other NGOs and activists to act against corruption.

For your fellow open contracting champions out there – what is the #1 piece of advice you would share with a reformer working to increase accountability, transparency, or participation in government? What has been the most unexpected challenge you’ve faced in this work? 

My number one piece of advice is to be open and ready to cooperate with public bodies. Often our line of work imposes confrontation with the authorities, however, it has to be constructive. We can’t achieve real results and systemic changes without government involvement. Sure, if we aim for some hype, there is no need for a partnership with public bodies. In turn, fundamental reforms require legislative and practical measures to be implemented on the public policy level. Thus, public oversight is a two-way street, and we need to negotiate with the authorities, teach and learn, give and receive.

With all that said, what surprises me is that sometimes law enforcement is unwilling to act according to the law, even though there is proven damage caused to the government as a result of corruption. There were cases when identifying and obtaining the necessary conclusions from expert organizations was not enough—so we spent a tremendous amount of resources to make law enforcement do their job. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to do this, since we wanted results. It is important for us to show everyone that we can and do bring positive changes. It is not a one-time event, but a part of a long-term commitment. 

Transparency and accountability are just the means to an end. In your work, what are the most important end goals? How can reducing corruption risk create better social, economic, or environmental outcomes?

As I already mentioned, public procurement is directly related to the well-being of citizens. With a view to ensuring a decent life for our people and further improving their living standards, the government is implementing large-scale projects and constructing social, cultural, scientific, educational, and other facilities. The integrity of public procurement affects all spheres of public life—from the quality of infrastructure and basic necessities, such as access to drinking water, electricity, ecological security, and digital development. If there is no transparency in public procurement, services will be provided poorly. We have examples of when people lack access to clean water just because corruption took place during the procurement process. The authorities didn’t ensure compliance of the contractor with the agreement. This resulted in depriving citizens of basic human rights, the water wasn’t suitable for consumption. Corruption in public procurement kills competitiveness, which negatively affects the business environment and SMEs development, and the economy as a whole. Transparency and accountability are indeed just themeans to achieve better lives for everyone.

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