COVID-19 Challenges and Response: How procurement underpins the World Bank’s response to the pandemic

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The World Bank Group is committed to providing a fast, flexible response to the coronavirus pandemic. We are offering financing, policy advice and technical assistance in every region, across every area from healthcare and education to trade and technology. In this blog series we explore how different teams around the World Bank Group are responding to the challenges ahead.

1. How is COVID-19 affecting your area of work?

With the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases growing exponentially, client countries have requested emergency support and help from the World Bank as they tackle the pandemic. Procuring medical goods on an emergency basis – such as masks, gowns, respirators, hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, and ambulances – is critical. The same goes for procurement of consultancy services to raise public awareness and to develop laboratory and medical protocols, especially as many hospitals lack capacity to manage the number of cases and the internal organization needed to prevent intra-hospital infection.

Procurement specialists are working round the clock with government counterparts and Bank colleagues on needs assessments and design of faster, more efficient arrangements to jump start project implementation. They are facing many challenges, such as market availability, border closings, and coordination with the government. Procurement specialists are also managing day-to-day activities of ongoing projects in all sectors and must now address challenges posed by the pandemic – such as broken supply-chains, workers not being able to report to work, and restrictions and delays at borders that affect contractors and suppliers’ ability to implement contracts. Most procurement specialists are in countries where the World Bank now requires work from home: this can slow coordination with other project team members as well as implementation units.

2. What are the biggest challenges this outbreak poses?

One of these is the state of the market for supplies and workforce that are vital to contain and combat the pandemic. Goods and services are not readily available, and we’re seeing price inflation as demand across the globe far exceeds the supply. Under normal circumstances, the global market regulates itself. But we are now in an unprecedented situation, where there is neither an automatic correction of the markets nor a global regulation in place to address market failures. And as COVID-19 is progressing very rapidly, new cases are being reported in many countries across the world, which makes the assessment of needs very difficult.

Impact on ongoing operations: Procurement processes may be delayed or cancelled in some ongoing projects because of COVID-19. The procurement specialists are advising countries on actions to take, but there is a strong possibility of contracts being delayed or terminated due to force majeure situations, as contractors and suppliers are not able to carry out their contracts due to border closings or self-isolation. 

Impact on procurement staff: Home-based work (by both Bank staff and government counterparts) and cancellation of mission travel are necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus.  But these pose big challenges. The heightened attention on procurement processes for critical goods and services puts added pressure on staff and counterparts. It’s harder to find the right solutions given the unprecedented global crisis, as well as to manage team dynamics under tight deadlines and remote work mode.  We’re all having to react to a rapidly evolving situation.

3. How is the Bank working to address these immediate issues? Which partners is the Bank working with?

Several measures are being put in place to address the challenges. The Bank launched the Fast Track COVID-19 Facility at the start of April, and a set of templates and guidance notes has been prepared, including fast-track procurement measures.  A client government can now choose from several streamlined and simplified processes, and contracts are now subject to ex-post review to accelerate procurement. Retroactive financing can be used up to 40% of the project’s amount. In addition, in some projects depending on the country context, quick disbursing components are being introduced, allowing disbursements from private sector imports against customs documents as proof of imports in the last 12 months.

With the help of the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI), comprehensive market research on medical goods has been developed and is being updated regularly to provide global data on the availability of WHO-recommended health and medical supplies. Regional COVID-19 procurement focal points have been nominated to provide guidance and support to staff who are preparing our emergency projects. These fast-track measures and documents have enabled the first round of projects to be prepared for decision meetings within an extraordinarily short time.

Multiple options are available to our borrowers. These include use of most effective methods for an emergency, such as direct contracting and/or streamlined competitive procedures, following national procedures and existing framework contracts. The Bank is also offering Hands-on Expanded Implementation Support (HEIS) at all stages of procurement – which ranges from help with supplier identification, to support for bidding and selection and/or negotiations to contract signing and monitoring of implementation. Borrowers also have the option to procure through UN agencies, which is enabled and expedited by Bank procedures and templates. 

In terms of logistics, staff are conducting all meetings virtually and connecting daily for COVID-19 projects. They are also constantly in touch with government authorities by phone or Skype to provide advice, guidance, and support. Practice managers are providing constant support and motivation to staff on the ground, keeping them informed and holding regular face-to-face WebEx meetings to discuss staff and family welfare, as well as solutions to complex and sensitive procurement issues. All procurement officers, across all regions, also meet regularly through virtual townhalls to exchange information and discuss strategies. In addition, regular meetings are being held with other departments so that the response from the Bank is coordinated and effective.

4. What is the Bank’s longer-term approach to preparing for and mitigating such crises?

The immediate approach is to focus on the health aspects of the pandemic and help equip facilities with adequate tools to treat infected patients and prevent new cases. The second phase of the response is to focus on economic and social implications of COVID-19. Our team’s work centers on helping countries develop credible and effective systems (including e-procurement systems) that ensure the continuity of processes and activities. The tools developed for the COVID-19 projects will be further refined by considering lessons learned, to inform tools in any future crisis situations. The Bank will step up the use of technology, data collection, and analysis to provide proactive support and assistance to countries that face pandemics and other dire emergencies.

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Authors

Vinay Sharma

Director, Solutions and Innovations in Procurement, Governance Global Practice

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