Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST)

Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) is an initiative recently launched in Malawi

Launching the CoST Malawi website, on Monday evening, Vice President of Malawi Saulos Chilima said that:

“I hope that respective governance structures, project implementing agencies and construction industry stakeholders will take this as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Malawi can be a shining example of good governance and prove to ourselves that it is possible to develop our country”

Chilima said he was committed to ensure that reforms incorporate CoST principles so that disclosures cover the whole value chain of construction activities in Malawi.

This is an interesting development in the construction sector in Malawi because as some readers will know, the Cashgate corruption scandal badly portrayed the construction sector in Malawi.

So one can only hope that the sector will fully embrace these reforms, because clearly there are advantages be realised.

However, lets look at the issue in a bit more detail.

According to CoST’s international website:

It is estimated that upwards of $4 trillion annually is lost through mismanagement, inefficiency, and corruption in public infrastructure – on average 10 to 30 percent of a project’s value. These losses have a negative effect on the quality, safety, and value of the built environment. Specific investigations have found much larger losses in some cases, including projects that were paid for but never built and projects that collapsed with injury and loss of life. 

In terms of inefficiency and mismanagement one can understand why the stakeholders would want better efficiency and management. It would reduce waste and introduce a greater level of safety.

But when it comes to corruption, I’m not quite clear why a sector that has struggled with endemic corruption for decades would suddenly want to reform itself, simply because it is being asked to publish details of the procurement process?

Let me put it this way, publishing the pre-contractual process could make it harder for corrupt officials to hijack the procurement of public contracts, but does it shut the door to corruption in procurement altogether?

Consider this scenario:-

Suppose a procurement committee had a preferred provider of certain services prior to publishing of a tender, by virtue of an inside secret agreement between officials, their boss, and this particular provider. A deal that would be of financial benefit to the members of that committee. What is to stop some members of that committee from secretly assisting the preferred provider to submit the strongest bid, one that fulfills all the conditions of the tender, and is likely to be the most attractive? What is to stop officials doctoring the process behind closed doors to ensure the preferred provider’s success? Especially if the help given, is given in secret?  What will guard against such a scenario?

I think it is more logical for certain checks and balances to be established as part of this initiative, to make it more ‘foolproof’. The Vice President Saulos Chilima must ensure that some additional measures are implemented in all public procurement dealings. For example, this initiative could go much further by demanding that no prior conscious contact whatsoever must have taken place between the members of the awarding committee, or an employee of the awarding body or ministry, and prospective bidders, when they knew a contract has been published. Further, to ensure that committees awarding contracts are formed from competent yet unconnected individuals, who do not work together, and have no social relationships, awarding committees should be made up of people from different sectors, who do not know each other, who do not work together, who are not part of the same social circles, who come from across the country, and who critically have declared their political support( i.e. they support different political parties). All this is important to make it harder for a conflict of interests to arise.

So as an example, if the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining is considering publishing an invitation to tender for some goods or services it requires, an awarding committee could be made up of nine individuals:- two from the ministry itself, three from Civil Society Organisations, one ordinary member of the public, one from a religious organisation and two diplomats from different foreign consulars.

In my view, awarding bodies composed of such a makeup, although operating at a cost to the government, are highly unlikely to award contracts on political or regional lines, or in situations where a conflict of interest exists.

Further, while best practices can be imported from other CoST implementations across the world, the threshold in selecting successful bidders should be improved, so that only those with the highest rating, and strongest bids, as agreed by a large majority (at least 7 out of the 9) of the committee are awarded the contracts.

Finally, smaller players need to have their own categories, so that they are not disadvantaged merely by their size, when pitted against larger companies.

CoST Malawi is directed by a Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) that comprises representatives from:

  • Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development,
  • the National Audit Office,
  • Accountant General,
  • Director of Buildings,
  • Anti-Corruption Bureau,
  • Office of Director of Public Procurement,
  • Malawi Building, Civil and Allied Trades Association
  • Malawi Economic Justice Network,
  • Human Rights Consultative Committee,
  • Business Action Against Corruption,
  • African Institute of Corporate Citizens

All sounds good and well on the surface. Anyone can cobble together rhetoric and words that sound heroic and purposeful. But the implementation of this initiatives is what counts. The devil is always in the detail. In my view, the essential features  are not good enough. More needs to be done to prevent abuse of process like the scenario provided above.

Patriotism, National Pride, Public Responsibility and Self-Esteem

flag2I saw this image on a friend’s Facebook wall the other day. It shows a tattered Malawian flag suspended on a rusty pole outside Salima District Council, in what is Salima district.

And it got me wondering, whether there is a link between a country’s ‘perceived patriotism’ or shall we say national pride with its officials public responsibility (or responsibilities)?

I asked this question because I couldn’t help wondering just how much replacing that flag would cost. Surely it can’t possibly be that much? Or can it?

Okay, lets look at it a different way. Are the council officials, although not excessively paid, on a salary? They are not volunteers, so of cpourse they have to be paid. Also, as far as Malawian civil service salaries go, is it fair to say that they are paid the same or better than teachers or nurses? Being an ‘office job’, I’d imagine they are paid relatively decent wages for them to be able to support their families. I can also guess that they probably have some electronic equipment that enables them to undertake their duties? If they can create a Facebook page, they definitely have computers (or at least access to a computer). Which could mean their building has electricity, and someone pays for it.

So then, how much would it cost to replace a tattered flag? Something that should be a symbol of your nationhood. Something you should be proud of, flying at full mast outside your office. Shouldn’t this be a priority? I doubt it would cost much. I’d be surprised if it cost more than $300 -$400 to get the flag replaced. But even if it did cost that much, there are many relatively wealthy people in our societies who originally come from Salima, who if approached with such a request, I doubt would hesitate to donate something for the cause.

In the end, I think its down to diminishing public responsibility, on the part of public officials, in that a flag is not seen as important enough to maintain. Even asking for donations from the member of the public for such a cause has probably never been considered. I can also guess that if you dig beneath the surface, there will be further rot. Possibly toilets in a bad state, an air-condition system that’s either non-existent or has been broken for tens of years – and nobody has since bothered to report for fixing. There will probably be badly maintained if not dangerously under-maintained motor vehicles. And other examples of negligence. Funnily enough when you travel across Malawi, you see the same urban decay everywhere, not only in the public sector, even in the private sector. And its worrying to say the least.

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Because what does it say, what message does it give? Why the detachment from keeping things in a relatively functional or at least ‘not dysfunctional’ order? Why can’t Malawians be bothered about these things? Or about anything for that matter?

Surely it’s not only down to poverty? Or is it? I don’t think so because even wealthy neighbourhoods in the capital Lilongwe have under-maintained roads, and poor public facilities. Could it be a low-self-esteem issue linked to lack of education as others have pointed out in the past? Or is it that an increasing number of Malawians have somehow ‘evolved’ to adopt a mental state where they always expect someone else to do things for them? What exactly is going on here?

I think we have to flush out this toxic mentality because it gives the wrong picture. I think we have to begin to be concerned about things other than one’s immediate family, because a society where people care for each other is a strong society. I think public officials must take another look as to what their responsibilities are towards those they serve, and ask whether they are fulfilling those commitments.

  • Value and Ethics of Public Responsibility