My Story of Open Contracting

Keynote Remarks at Open Contracting Partnership
Amsterdam, November 28, 2017

I want to share with you a story – my story of how open contracting has been inextricably interwoven as a thread running through my personal and professional life.  

I grew up in Bihar, India’s poorest state.  And I remember when I was six years old, I came home one day to find a cart full of the most delicious sweets on our doorstep.  My brothers and I dug in and that’s when my father came home.  He was livid.  And I still remember how we cried when that cart of half-eaten sweets was pulled away from us.  

Later I understood why my father was so upset.  The sweets were a bribe from a contractor trying to get my father to award him a government contract.  My father was responsible for building roads in Bihar.  But Bihar was also India’s most corrupt state, so contracts were granted behind closed doors at the influence of politicians currying political favors.  My father stood in their way.  So after carts of sweets failed, he was harassed, intimidated and threatened.  But he did not budge.  I remember how his was a lonely struggle with only his commitment to integrity to fortify him through this tough fight.

Years later, when I joined the World Bank, the contracting problem re-surfaced.  I had just disbursed a major loan to Uganda, but when I visited health clinics on the ground, I found that the poor never received their life-saving medicines that were budgeted because of corruption in contracting.

That started what has now become a 25-year professional journey on anti-corruption, which led to a central focus on corruption in public contracting - this is where the big bucks were, this is what financed elections, that is what deprived the poor in Uganda and elsewhere of essential public services.  So at the World Bank Institute, we worked with partners to launch the Open Contracting Partnership – it is wonderful to see it flourish into this thriving platform.

Interestingly, contracting resurfaced in my life two years ago when I got tapped to lead the Open Government Partnership or OGP.  OGP is a partnership of 74 countries, 15 subnational governments and thousands of civil society organizations who have co-created over 3000 commitments in national action plans to make governments more open and less corrupt.  And guess what?  Open contracting is one of the most prominent, rapidly growing areas for commitments in OGP action plans, embraced already by 23 countries and 4 subnational governments.  

This is encouraging, but it is just the start. We need to move from commitments to credible implementation.  But beyond this, our vision must be to make open contracting a global norm, so corrupt leaders and companies can’t strike backroom deals to enrich themselves, robbing ordinary citizens of vital public services.

Of course, this will be a tough fight given powerful vested interests.  So how do we get there?  Let me share 3 C’s for the way forward.

First C: Compelling results. We need compelling stories to convince and galvanize stakeholders around the globe to push for open contracting against formidable odds. Ukraine’s open contracting platform, Prozorro, provides an excellent example: a 45 percent increase in private sector suppliers due to open competition; 60% of entrepreneurs reporting partial or significantly reduced corruption due to Prozorro; government reporting over $1 billion in fiscal savings; cancer patients receiving additional, free chemo due to savings from Prozorro procurement. This is great, but if are going to make open contracting a global norm, we need more Prozorros!

Second C: Coalitions. Open contracting is no technocratic fix.  It strikes at the very heart of politics.  It threatens powerful networks of corruption which use public contracts to finance elections and distribute patronage – for instance, the Brazilian Odebrecht gave billions of dollars in bribes - through a dedicated “Bribes Department” – to top leaders in a dozen countries in exchange for contracts to secure hundreds of construction projects.  Confronted with such powerful networks, individual stakeholders feel helpless and hopeless, and that is why we need coalitions of integrity from government, business and civil society joining forces to overcome entrenched networks of corruption. We need reformers in government as in Bogota pushing to disclose contracts and expose leakages, we simultaneously need the private sector like Newmont in Ghana which not only voluntarily published its contracts but insisted on open Parliamentary validation, and we need engaged citizenry as watchdogs, as in Ukraine where civil society as well as tens of thousands of citizens are using the citizen monitoring DoZorro platform to track and flag problems with contracts. OGP provides a natural multi-stakeholder platform to bring together such coalitions and to commit to complementary actions through OGP action plans.  

But ultimately, for all this to succeed, we need the final C: Courageous and Committed Leadership - we need leaders from government, civil society and business who have the integrity and conviction to fight the good fight and persevere through formidable odds.

And this brings me back full-circle to my father: it was April 8, 2010, I had called my father. He had retired from government, but was still fighting corruption as a private citizen. It was late at night and at age 80, he was typing up a 70-page public interest litigation against corruption in a road contract. Though he was no lawyer, he argued the case in court himself the next day, won the ruling but later that evening, he fell and he died.  He fought till the end, and in his lifetime, he won some individual battles. But he would have been so happy to see this gathering – to see emerging norms for open contracting that did not exist then, to see me here amidst all of you, and above all to see this community of reformers joined together in what for him was a lonely fight.

The real frontier for open contracting is to forge these coalitions of courageous leaders – joining up the lonely warriors like my father - so they find collective courage and strength to fight through the formidable odds.   Let us forge these coalitions in every country gathered here – and unleash an inexorable movement to make open contracting a global norm, to deliver on the precious promise that should reside in the very heart of government – that governments exist to serve their citizens rather than serving themselves, that their contract – their real social and moral contract - is only to benefit ordinary citizens, not the corrupt or the powerful.  That is our collective fight. 

Authors: Sanjay Pradhan
Filed Under: OGP News