Policymaking for SPP should begin with an examination of state strategies and procurement systems through development and sustainability lenses, and should draw on practical lessons learned in comparable contexts.
This chapter addresses some of the most common barriers to the planning and implementation of SPP, which are linked to institutional and economic viability, and to knowledge and human capital.,, These are divided into three broad topics: entry points; regulation; and professionalization. The recommendations are based on the literature, the author’s own experience, and discussions at a workshop on public procurement hosted by Chatham House on 18 June 2020. A list of participants in the workshop is included towards the end of this paper: see About the author and contributors.
Public procurement, as a lever for sustainable development, can be shaped through several entry points. A strategy of procurement for sustainable development can arise from a particular jurisdictional issue, which could be regional, national or subnational in its coverage. As seen, a state strategy or priority can develop in a number of different forms – such as PNG’s Vision 2050, Ecuador’s Buen Vivir, and Brazil’s Food Acquisition Programme. Alternatively, there are multiple international frameworks and institutions offering ‘hooks’ for SPP, which can be coordinated with state strategies.
Importing experiences, or inventing a SPP strategy from scratch – without taking the state’s own priorities into account – is likely to have limited take-up. To illustrate this point, in recent experiences in Colombia and Vietnam local stakeholders were suspicious about adopting European SPP standards but were keen to learn from experiences from the Global South. Having then worked with local consultants in regional networks, Colombia decided to focus on public procurement of sustainable coffee, which was nationally relevant; and Vietnam on procuring legal timber, in line with a national interest in supporting the wood furniture industry., Guillermo Navarro, from FAO’s Subregional Office for Mesoamerica, which is based in Panama, agrees with the importance of linking development models with public procurement. ‘If the government has a clear business [or development] model, then a public procurement instrument is easier to implement because it would be an integrated demand component built in the model.’ For other countries, fighting corruption might be a priority, such as was the case for several states in Latin America, such as Brazil, where public procurement reforms in the 1990s have initially addressed transparency guarantees and procedural equity – progressing more recently to tackling other development and equity principles for sustainability.
Alternative entry points are presented by international instruments and institutions, such as the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; climate, biodiversity, land use and desertification agreements; and well-being commitments or human rights instruments, such as the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, on the Rights of the Child, and on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Opportunities for states to rethink their consumption and production systems are also presented by international trade negotiations, such as those leading to the conclusion of Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreements between the EU and tropical countries. In addition, several policy agendas present opportunities for procurement for sustainable development: these include ‘the reset economy’, ‘regenerative economy’, ‘circular economy’, ‘just transitions’, ‘pathways to sustainability’, ‘resilient societies’, ‘green growth’, ‘green economies’, etc. In Uganda, for instance, the idea of using SPP for ‘green growth’, as proposed by UNEP, gained traction after local stakeholders realized it could help in generating jobs, particularly for women and younger people, and in stimulating innovation at the local level. This is an example of how states can coordinate the interests of international organizations based on their own priorities.
Trying to build as comprehensive an SPP strategy as possible – observing multiple development and sustainability goals as suggested in the framework proposed in this paper (Figure 1) – seems to be a good starting point. However, while a comprehensive approach is a good objective in itself, most experiences demonstrate a phased implementation. Several states have opted to begin the process of building an SPP strategy by focusing on a few types of products and a few ‘sustainability pillars’, before progressing to encompass other organizations, sectors and principles of equity for sustainable development. The case of Ecuador illustrates this point well. Ecuador began by incorporating the popular and solidarity economy into its public procurement system, and has tried more recently to introduce environmental criteria for a few categories of products. The state of São Paulo in Brazil followed a similar pathway, having started with the procurement of legal timber before then developing diverse environmental criteria for all types of goods and services purchased by the state.,
The revised concept of SPP offered in this paper, alongside the proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development, may benefit policy analysts, policymakers, international organizations and regional customs unions as they seek to appraise current strategies and to reform public procurement systems to deliver on sustainable development objectives. In doing so, such actors (particularly those engaged in high-income states in the Global North) will encounter at least three aspects that are particularly challenging, yet crucial to the task. First, to get to grips with geographical equity in solidarity with former colonies and those regions and states struggling to develop under the current trade regime. Second, to establish intergenerational equity, being mindful and addressing the needs of older, younger and future generations. Third, to contribute to the reduction of consumption levels per head. Consumerism and the uneven accumulation of wealth are at odds with the development and sustainability principles presented in this paper.
Regulation and institutionalization
The effectiveness of procurement for sustainable development is more likely to follow from mandatory and binding regulations rather than voluntary or soft, legally non-binding regulations.,, Therefore, this paper recommends enshrining the relevant ‘sustainability pillars’ in binding regulations. Primary legislation (such as statutes, acts and laws) should enshrine general principles, rather than specific solutions and technologies. For instance, primary legislation could encompass macro-level ‘development blocks’ and sustainability pillars, but leave the details to be set out in secondary or subordinate legislation (decrees and ordinances), which can be more easily amended and updated. Also, an SPP policy could apply to public procurement across government bodies, in national and subnational governments, as well as in state-owned and state-controlled companies and organizations that receive public funds, if appropriate. Solutions and technologies will constantly change, but sustainability principles – such as those suggested, in the proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development – are conceptually robust and likely to remain relevant in the longer term.
Solutions and technologies will constantly change, but sustainability principles are conceptually robust and likely to remain relevant in the longer term.
As described in previous chapters, PNG enshrined some of the sustainability pillars in its National Procurement Act of 2018. Brazil modified its legislation in 2010 to include ‘the promotion of a sustainable national development’ as one of the objectives of public procurement. Brazil opted for a generic form of ‘sustainable development’ in its procurement law, leaving the details to be addressed in secondary legislation, while PNG’s National Procurement Act is more specific, with a focus on the localization of the economy and on the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of solutions. There is no single best solution for a binding regulation, but this paper encourages policymakers and policy analysts to appreciate definitions of sustainability that are relevant to the public sector, such as the revised definition of SPP given in Box 1.
Public bodies can use procurement as a lever for sustainable development. However, making the case for procurement for sustainable development is unlikely to succeed in the absence of state commitment to the provision of development opportunities (such as those illustrated as blocks of the proposed procurement framework) or to equity principles for sustainability (such as those represented in the framework as pillars). While it is true that anecdotal and punctual action have led to initial moves towards SPP across the world, particularly at subnational level, political support is required for scaling it up.,,,
Professionalism in a permanent taskforce
Sustainable development is a complex matter, as is public procurement. Procurement for sustainable development is more likely to succeed when a multi-sectoral and multi-professional taskforce or council is made permanent, and when it effectively harnesses collective expertise to drive innovation in public procurement matters. Indeed, experts from research institutes, NGOs and the private sector, including actors from trade unions, minority groups and the solidarity economy, could well contribute to this taskforce, which can have advisory and regulatory powers. For example, a taskforce on procurement for sustainable development could advise departments and ministries, as well as heads of state or government, and /or regulate technical requirements.
Procurement is unlikely to contribute to sustainable development if the procurement process is broadly dismissive of the challenges of marginalized groups and is conducted by highly specialized units with limited understanding of the interlinkages and complexity of sustainability and development. Sustainable development is not a sub-discipline of ecology or economics, but an issue that is better studied by multidisciplinary teams with expertise in development economics, design engineering, and environmental and social policy, for example.
High-level convening and facilitation are crucial in this process, which should attempt to keep political and technical decisions separate. In particular, the leadership of a taskforce for procurement for sustainable development should not be granted, in full, to a representative of a for-profit organization or a business-sponsored foundation – rather, it should remain under the auspices of the government and/or of a legitimate and independent organization. This can help shape a more balanced policy or strategy for procurement for sustainable development (or SPP) – one that has societal rather than profit-seeking interests at heart. Open dialogue can help in the creation of ambitious but feasible tendering requirements, which would also avoid failed bids. The work of such a taskforce or council could start with an appraisal of current development strategies and associated procurement systems, as suggested in this paper.
Developing capacity is also fundamental, since knowledge in sustainability and development is scarce. For instance, Brazil’s National School of Public Administration has offered training in sustainable procurement since 2015. This has been key to expanding capacity across organizations in the country, and has also encouraged subnational governments to take action. For more practical advice and additional resources, please refer to the appendix to this paper, which includes a list of online resources, training and other materials such as guidelines and manuals for the implementation of SPP, as well as opportunities for experience sharing.