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Why don’t women participate in public procurement?

Fostering gender-responsive public procurement: Understanding the barriers and solutions to include women-led businesses in public procurement in East Africa.

Government procurement is the biggest public market in the world. OECD member countries spend an average of 12% of annual GDP procuring goods, works, and services while Low and Middle-Income countries spend an even greater proportion on such purchasing. Government procurement should be a game-changer in tackling labor market segregation and gender gaps in employment. But with this powerful potential, why are women-led businesses still underrepresented, mainly in bids on public procurement contracts? What can we do to unlock public procurement’s potential to provide economic empowerment of these promising women-led businesses across the East African region?

The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) is implementing a two-year study (2021-2023) in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda to investigate why women-led businesses are disproportionally disadvantaged in their access to public procurement opportunities. The Growth and Economic Opportunities funds the study for Women–East Africa (GrOW EA) initiative, a joint venture between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

We have generated preliminary findings from the five countries through the review of existing legal and policy frameworks and mechanisms to improve women’s participation in the five target countries. These preliminary findings suggest issues continue to persist across the five countries, where gender inclusion, to varying degrees and through varying measures, has been incorporated into the legal framework for public procurement. On the side of governments, challenges include entities’ lack of compliance with legal provisions, weak implementation, corruption, lack of capacity of public officials, inadequate policies, lack of awareness building to the public on opportunities available to women-led businesses, lack of proper oversight, the politicization of the public resources and budget, and lack of cohesive planning. From the side of women-led businesses, issues include bureaucratic processes, lack of knowledge of opportunities and/or lack of knowledge of how to engage, lack of capacity for capital investment of smaller-sized women-led businesses, corruption, and gender prejudice and consequent disadvantages; men ‘naturally’ being considered leaders over women, and women experiencing obstacles not only about their participation in public procurement opportunities but equally because of the socio-cultural expectations of them as women/mother/wives and, as a result, often being time-poor in their ability to invest time into their businesses. In some countries, a lack of assessments and research on the effectiveness of these schemes to include women in public procurement and women-led businesses disadvantages in accessing the same opportunities as their male counterparts more broadly also remains an issue hindering efforts to scale up, replicate or introduce evidence-based initiatives to further the inclusion of women in public procurement.

So why don’t women participate in public procurement? Time will tell. AFIC is looking forward to continuing the study–seeking to validate the preliminary findings through engagement with women-led businesses and relevant stakeholders–and exploring the opportunities for addressing these issues. This collaborative initiative will produce evidence-based recommendations to make public procurement more equitable, and inclusive through a series of reports, policy briefs, advocacy efforts, and engagement in regional and national fora.