by S.N. Nyeck
Procuring Along the Equality Grain
“To address the annoyances and questions that gender raises and the policy trajectories that this category brings to global public procurement reform, one needs not confine innovation to the margins. This is to say that conversing with the idea of equality in a more substantive way might provide us with better tools for discussing gender in public procurement without limiting the frame to discrimination only or to the traditional equal opportunity analysis. This is an invitation to consider alternative values and policy venues in probing the size and texture of the equality grain as perhaps of better nutritional value than the mere bringing in of discrimination sheaves in the procurement field. Assuming such a consideration is agreed upon, it becomes useful to ask, what is the subject of “gender” that brings a substantive (not just formal, procedural, or opportune) vision to equality in public procurement? This subject is, it is contended, the “vulnerable subject.” Moreover, considerations for a substantive approach to gender equality must argue for valuing states’ self-constitutive (Korsgaard 2009) functions and actions in an age of complex global governance arrangements. Hence the vision of a “vulnerable subject” as the center agent of a reformed vision of gender equality in public procurement is necessarily intertwined with concerns about the future of democratic (Freeman and Minow 2009), responsive and responsible governance (Poh and Stumpf 2005; Chooner and Greenspahn 2008). It therefore follows that “the vision of the state that would emerge in such an engagement would be both more responsive and responsible” (Fineman 2009, 2 My emphasis).
Martha Fineman defines vulnerability as that which “should initially be understood as arising from our embodiment, which carries with it the ever-present possibility of harm, injury, and misfortune from mildly adverse to catastrophically devastating events, whether accidental, intentional or otherwise” (Fineman 2009, 9). This universal and unavoidable human condition helps us understand that if no society can completely eradicate vulnerability, it can and does “mediate, compensate, and lessen our vulnerability through programs, institutions, and structures” (Fineman 2009, 2). These institutions themselves need not be treated as perfectly immune from vulnerability. Quite the contrary, institutional vulnerability mirrors, and must remain conversant with, the vulnerability of real-life subjects distinct from those willed as autonomous and independent in the liberal tradition.
Put differently, rather than starting a reflection from gender equality or equity or market efficiency, or state imperfections only, vulnerability initiates a dialogue between all agents interacting in public procurement processes and values their lived experiences of self-insufficiency and interdependency. Hence one should consider “gender reality” not as a catalog of impediments or personal failures, but from the perspective of a “vulnerable subject” that sheds light on “the fact that societal institutions play a significant role in maintaining and extending inequality [and that] is the very reason that we need a more active state, one that is responsible to that reality” (Fineman 2009, 2). It is further argued that when states fail to respond relationally to “gender reality,” they maintain a status quo in public policy between citizens. However, states extend state-citizen inequality by failing to recognize their own vulnerability, “a state of constant possibility of harm” (Fineman 2009, 2), when embarking on initiatives that steer them away from or downplay their constitutive function of public values promoters and protectors. Public discontent and scandals surrounding public procurement schemes are reminders that a one-sided conversation on the prospect of efficiency alone is not capturing the social dissonance that even a rule-conforming procurement may cause in society, not to mention government acquisitions tainted by corruption.
Supply-side improvement perspectives do indeed provide economic benefits to women entrepreneurs, but such benefits may also translate into waste or divergence of national resources from budget items that have significant impact on women. Kenya, for instance, has been hailed as a model of gender-responsive public procurement and one of the first African countries to adopt a 30% reservation scheme for women and youth and persons living with disabilities (Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, 2015 enacted in 2016 Section 1 57(5)). Yet, as Reuters reported recently, the procurement of an expensive body scanner in 2015 has had no effect on the health of Kenyan populations 5 years later. The expensive body scanner has never been used because the hospital it was sent to had no trained radiologists and the population still treks up to 150 km to get to a better-equipped hospital. In the words of a medical worker who was interviewed, “it is very disappointing that the government missed the opportunity to do something great for the health care system before it wanted to do procurement,” a behavior the interviewee qualifies as “criminal” (Fick 2020).
Five years after the purchase of the scanner, the discontent of the medical practitioner seems to justify the protests that the union of medical doctors and paramedical employees organized in Kenya from June to December 2016 when they took to the street chanting #LipaKamaTender (Pay us as you pay your tenders) (Gathigi 2016). These protests pointed to what was then perceived as a pattern of corruption and waste on misguided or overpriced subpar services in the health sector while the quality of social welfare diminishes. As studies show in the context of Europe, “the way that public services are governed, resourced, funded and delivered is crucial to women’s lives” (Conley and Page 2015) and well-being (Glasby 2012). In Africa, access to healthcare services is strategic in public procurement, and not considering overlapping vulnerabilities, as the above-mentioned case in Kenya shows, is to tell only one side of the story about gender and public procurement reform. Gender-responsive procurement policy may respond to the demands of the supply side, but it does not always follow that empirical responsiveness alone makes governance more responsible.”
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Nyeck S.N. (2020) Gender Equality in Public Procurement. In: Farazmand A. (eds) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1598-1