Making procurement in INGOs fairer

Even in the best case scenario, procurement in most INGOs works in closed circuit. There are limited vendors they will consider for a particular service or product, and it is very hard to break that circuit.

Mohan Rai

  • Read Time 4 min.

A disclaimer at the outset: I am writing this piece based on a limited strata of experience, which is as a vendor or consultant for assignments related to development communication, particularly videography and filmmaking. Procurement in INGOs entails procuring a wide range of services and products besides development communication about which I do not have much experience and information.

Like for most procurement, INGOs mostly publicize advertisements for development communication related assignments as well. Thus, the process, in effect, is relatively open for all. Anyone who is interested and can meet basic requirements can apply. Generally it requires three vendors in the minimum and their applications/proposals to take the process forward. Writing proposals takes time and effort. Then if you are lucky, they shortlist you or your company, and you are requested for a presentation and interview. Preparing presentations and making yourself and your team available for it also takes some time and effort. Sometimes you are asked for more documents or meetings. Then the INGO is supposed to select the best or most appropriate one for them for the assignment concerned. This, as a process, seems fine.

However, things are not so simple and straightforward as it seems. Usually the assignment goes to a person or a company whom the people in the INGO know, someone who is a friend, relative or someone in their circle. Or it can also go to one who can provide them kickbacks. In some cases, the two can be the same (Someone that is a friend/relative etc of the people in the INGO concerned but who can also offer kickbacks). In the process the time, effort and resources–and above all the hopes–of others who participate in the process is sacrificed for the convenience or benefit of the people in the procurement team. Needless to say, this is unfair and doesn’t go with the principles of good governance. And what is even more unfair is that most INGOs these days have stopped notifying other vendors who participate in the process of their rejection. This keeps them hoping and guessing that they might get the assignment when, in fact, someone else has already got it and most probably started working on it already.

I have participated in the recruitment/selection processes when I knew beforehand that the result of the process had already been fixed. I did not want to disengage with the organizations concerned (with the hope of possibility of getting an assignment in the future). Sometime back, after there was no notification for quite some time for an assignment we had applied for, I used whatever little connection I had to find out what was happening. “We did not get any update. Hope the proposal was not too bad”, I texted the coms person. “It was very good”, she texted back. “Why didn’t you select us then?”, I felt like texting but didn’t.

There should be no issue in offering assignments to someone one knows, someone s/he can trust and rely upon. This is perfectly understandable and it makes sense. But in that case, the people in the INGO concerned should have the courage to say that they want to hire a particular vendor or consultant directly (because they can trust them and rely on them). This not only saves the time and resources of the INGO concerned (by doing away with the procurement process) but more importantly spares other prospective vendors from their time, effort and resources being wasted.

Even in the best case scenario, procurement in most INGOs works in closed circuit. There are limited vendors they will consider for particular service or product, and it is very hard to break that circuit. Usually, one will require strong personal connection or recommendation for it. This is especially true for big INGOs that have communications unit/department who already have a network of people they can hire.

The individual INGOs set the criteria for a particular assignment. Even some of the personnel in INGOs confide in private that sometimes these criteria are quite impractical. Also at times the vendors are not clearly informed of these criteria. Only the person or committee who will judge the prospective vendors against these criteria knows about it. For example, many INGOs stipulate that there is a female member in the crew. Videography assignments these days are commissioned on quite a limited budget. Budget limitations can make it difficult to hire female members in the crew unless the company already has a female in the team because this requires a different arrangement for logistics (for example, a separate room has to be arranged for her in the hotel). Making a team more diverse and more gender balanced is, undoubtedly, the right thing to do. It is a moral imperative and male entrepreneurs can always do better in this area. At the same time, forging a diverse team also requires increased budget to accommodate the practical and (rightfully deserving) needs that women have, especially those who will make them work safely and without any risks of harassment, including micro aggressions (that can never be condoned or accepted). 

I am not saying that all INGOs are unfair or corrupt or unfair all the time. Compared to other sectors or other organizations in Nepal, my guess is that their governance is undoubtedly better. And fair procurement processes do happen. But such cases, in reality, are few and far between.

It is only natural that we expect fairness, transparency and accountability from INGOs, the agencies which profess and champion these values.  

We expect fairness, transparency and accountability from INGOs, the agencies which profess and champion these values.

The Association of International NGOs (AIN) has an opportunity and responsibility to enhance transparency and accountability of its members.

It can set a guideline or a code of conduct that could work as a reference, setting the high mark in terms of standards to be upheld in matters of procurement. In a way, this tool would act as a voluntary code of conduct. In the least, it can state that its members are obliged to respond to vendors after the procurement process is complete. It might not be possible to respond to all vendors who apply but they could respond to those whom they shortlist and interview. After having participated in sometimes rather lengthy procurement processes (sometimes even for small assignments), having spent their time and resources to prepare the proposals, presentations and going through the process of interviews, it is their right to be informed of the selection made and decisions taken.

Mohan Rai is a filmmaker and development communication expert with more than a decade of experience of working for development organizations and agencies in Nepal.