Caribbean-based procurement professional, Craig Brewin, continues his series on Procurement issues arising from last year’s hurricane season, as covered at the CDB special conference. (Part 1 is here.)
How important are procurement skills when an agency is dealing with a disaster or major emergency? At the Procurement in Emergency Situations workshop, held in June this year, the importance of the skills and knowledge of procurement staff was at the forefront of the discussions.
If the high number of deaths in Puerto Rico was more a result of delays in rebuilding the infrastructure following Hurricane Maria than from the direct impact of the hurricane itself, then support to speed up the supply of essential goods and services is vital. In the view of the Caribbean Development Bank and the World Bank, who hosted the workshop, procurement needs to be at the top table in emergency planning and emergency response and involved in all key decisions.
Given their understanding of the markets, procurement professionals should have the knowledge as well as skills to know what is feasible before major decisions are made. But Neville Johnson, talking of his experience of the Christchurch earthquakes advised delegates that they if they want to save lives they have to do a lot more than just buying when disaster strikes. Procurement people will need to use their understanding of logistics and project management to make things happen, often outside their own remit and procurement staff need their leadership skills more than ever. They also need a high tolerance for stress and uncertainty and the ability to be decisive and flexible.
Crucially, people need to know their mandate and exercise it authoritatively. You have to be a source of consistency. You need to know the other agencies in the field and their needs. You need to know your own organisation, and if you want to be able to act quickly you need to know all its systems and procedures.
Joao N. Veiga Malta and Paul Schapper from the Word Bank both set out the issues that procurement need to be wary of in the heat of the emergency. Price gouging is inevitable and although it can be mitigated to some extent, in the face of significant pressure you have to be able to walk away from a deal. Also know that ignoring the rules, whatever they are, “never ends well”. But you must have the ability and authority to negotiate.
Delegates expressed their own experiences of doing deals “under the Ackee tree” but also of getting competitive quotes for routine supplies, such as flashlights. The logistics of sourcing food and non-food items in the region, where delivery is primarily by sea is also a challenge. But we also heard from Santiago Ibargüen of PAHO, the Pan America Health Organisation, who have considerable experience of in-the-field procurement during an emergency.
PAHO, part of WHO, are primarily concerned with ensuring the health system works. They act quickly and flexibly on a ‘whatever-works’ basis, with field procurement officers operating with high levels of delegation under specific emergency procurement rules. Listening to the stories around individual purchases felt like a pitch for an action movie, but this is procurement. Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.