Priming sustenance through public procurement

WITH the lapsing of the State of Emergency and gradual return to normal life and State governance, strategic government spending on goods and services can increase the uptake of sustainability standards in the wake of Covid-19, driving our sustainable development ambitions.

While the expectation is that government will respond with unprecedented spending to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report released by the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), urges governments across the world to ensure public procurement does no harm to people and the planet.

The report explores how government spending can drive the uptake of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) – special rules that guarantee that the products we buy do not hurt the environment and the people that make them.

VSS ensures products are made or transported in accordance with certain sustainability metrics, such as its environmental impact, basic human rights, labour standards, and gender equality.

With this in mind, there is no doubt that the integration of VSS in public procurement and trade policies can scale up their adoption. VSS have in the past and in the SADC region been recognised as potentially transformative tools for governments to realise their sustainability commitment. If used appropriately with trade policy, they could change our course toward sustainable development.

However, we must also ensure that small scale producers and businesses are not left behind because of stringent VSS requirements that they cannot meet.

Indeed, Covid-19 has obstructed economic growth, increased unemployment, exposed inequalities, and raised poverty and global hunger, rolling back the progress made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While government spending and relief is at the heart of the Covid-19 response, there needs to also be a long-term focus on ensuring action today does not scupper our sustainability goals. This is also bearing in mind that public procurement represents, on average 30 percent of GDP in developing countries.

Covid-19 has exposed vulnerabilities and risks in our systems and business models. We now need to take this opportunity to build a more sustainable future and thus put the SDGs at the heart of policy-making.

This is why integrating sustainable development in public procurement and national trade policy is a starting point.

The UN report shows that VSS adoption rates are more feasible for open economies with diversified economic sectors such as those that belong to large developed and middle-income countries.

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True adoption of VSS standards by lower-income nations requires a relatively well-functioning government system, government capacity and the ability to meet the global demand for products.

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To walk towards this, Namibia will thus need to enhance national capacity through a governance model that involves independent certification bodies to cope with rising demand as the number of VSS grows.

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We will also need to incorporate VSS within the trade regime with a database that uses the standard international trade classification to provide an overview of the commodities covered by the standards, avoid the proliferation of VSS systems through convergence and divergence of recognition mechanisms, curb over-certification through appropriate measures and conduct political dialogue on the benefits of scaling up VSS.