Map of South Africa, with provinces, neighbour...
Image via Wikipedia

Anti-corruption core focus for UN Global Compact, more SA groups sign in

Engineering News by Christy van der Merve

March 17, 2011

From 2011 to 2014 the major focus of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), which focuses on sustainable business promotion, would be to fight corruption.

South Africa, with 52 organisations partaking in the initiative, was represented at the UNGC network through the National Business Initiative (NBI), which joined the UNGC in 2007.

On Thursday, a further four South African entities signed on to become a part of the UNGC, which focuses on ten principles in the areas of human rights, labour practices, the environment, and anti-corruption…Discussions would start on ‘integrity pacts’ to put procurement processes under the spotlight, and stakeholders would look to start a pilot project, which would enable the establishment of best practice guidelines, and monitoring and reporting guidelines…UNGC South Africa chairperson Futhi Mtoba noted that a collective action platform called the National Anti-Corruption Forum, which represented business, government and civil society, already existed in South Africa. She said this forum had identified projects in the pipeline that could serve as a pilot project to establish guidelines and principles to root out corruption. One of these projects was the Metrorail upgrade of moving stock. She said that Information Technology was also an area where government was “hit seriously”, and thus these projects could be scrutinised. Read the full article.

The Global Compact launched in 1999 by Koffi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-General, is an initiative that promotes ten agreed principles of responsible corporate citizenship based on U.N. universal values related to human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. It goes without saying that the Global Compact initiative appeals to many in Africa because the U.N. brand offers civil society a broader platform for cross-sectoral partnerships and political mobilization. Under the Global Compact, civil society is becoming more engaged and creative by shifting discourse from ‘corruption’ tout court, to ‘the actual areas where it manifests.’  It is said that the risk of corruption is higher in public procurement and incidences of government subpar performance increasingly make front page news on the continent.

So, what is in the U.N. Global Compact brand for African countries? A possibility. As the model of public-private partnerships for development is  integrated and understood by social and economic actors, it might be reasonnable to expect that actual  government  procurement reform could gain greater support.

It is important to note that civil society engaged in the debate over public procurement reform in Africa is not anti-business. There are pockets of business-adverse activists all over the continent but their influence is declining. In the case of South Africa, civil society is focusing on the fight against corruption in public procurement because it hurts business, democratic governance, and society at large. The U.N. Global Compact is therefore an initial step in the good direction.

Despite its good intentions, the U.N. Global Compact still lacks adequate regulatory and institutional framework. A report published by the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) of the United Nations in 2010 highlights several regulatory and institutional problems with the Global Compact that could, once again, put the reputation of the U.N. at risk. For instance, noting  the confusion between ends and means, the JIU warns that “mere commitment to the principles upon joining the initiative is not a certificate of ‘good behavior’ on the part of participants.” Moreover, “the voluntary nature of the commitment and the ‘learning’ premise on which the initiative is based do not provide adequate safeguards for behavior.” These are the same problems that cripple African bureaucracies.

According to the U.N. Joint Inspection Unit report, the lack of reliable regulatory and institutional standing limits the impact of the Global Compact. It therefore follows that in order to bring about institutional reforms, African states and civil society also need to explore possibilities that the WTO Government Procurement Agreement offers. This is not going to be an easy task because of differences in emphasis –social versus economic outcomes, administrative versus legal approaches– in the U.N. and the WTO models. Nevertheless, without a serious commitment to an institutionalized and formalized procurement compact, broader political participation alone may not bring about the kind of economic development that civil society wishes to see in Africa.  S.N. Nyeck.