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The explosion and resulting disaster in Beirut this week is a tragedy for all the people affected and for the entire city, as well as for the country of Lebanon.

According to the BBC, the ammonium nitrate which seems to be the cause of the blast arrived in Lebanon “on a Moldovan-flagged ship, the Rhosus, which entered Beirut port after suffering technical problems during its voyage from Georgia to Mozambique, according to Shiparrested.com, which deals with shipping-related legal cases. The Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and was shortly afterwards abandoned by its owners, sparking several legal claims. Its cargo was stored in a port warehouse for safety reasons, the report said”.

The ineptitude and corruption that taints Lebanese public affairs then led to years of inactivity. Apparently, the head of the port and customs authorities had warned the judiciary about the dangers of storing such dangerous material in the middle of a busy, industrial area, and asked for action, but nothing was done. Were backhanders and bribes involved at this point? The end result in any case was this disaster, which has killed over 100 people and devasted a city that was already on its knees because of the Syrian refugee crisis, the pandemic and economic collapse.

We have written previously about the dangers of corruption, and how it can lead to endemic problems in an organisation or even a country.  Lebanon appears to be an example of that, with corruption at the heart of its decline into virtually “failed state” categorisation. That’s why, if we are lucky enough to be in a country where corruption is not so much of an issue, we have to be really vigilant to make sure it stays that way.

Giving the odd low value government contract to a firm run by our friends without a competitive process might not seem like a big deal – but it is the “slippery slope” argument that I find relevant here. If that is OK, then what is  the next step? And the next? And the next? And before you know it, those in power are saying, “who needs public procurement rules really … just trust us”.

Anyway, there is more around corruption in my forthcoming book of course, which doesn’t mention Lebanon actually but does have stories from Brazil, Russia, the US, the UK and many other countries. But aside from corruption, and indeed the issue of who had purchased this marial from whom and what commercial deals lay behind it, there are two other important Bad Buying lessons to be learnt from this event.

  1. Supply chain risks, problems and even disasters don’t just occur in the core supply chain processes (farming, mining, processing, manufacturing). They can also happen during the logistics processes that are also key to the overall supply chain cycle – shipping, storage, transportation and so on.
  2. Bad Buying and bad supply chain management can affect a much wider group of stakeholders than simply the buyer and seller in the transaction. In this case, hundreds have lost their lives, and thousands have had their lives changed in a terrible way. All because the management, storage and shipping of the products involved were not managed properly.

The public inquiry into the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London, which killed 72 residents in June 2017,  has heard that procurement rules were circumvented to avoid an open tendering process. Bruce Sounes, who was the lead architect on the Tower refurbishment, told the inquiry that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) asked the architect, Studio E, to defer some of their fees so that the cost looked like it was under the EU procurement threshold that requires a competitive process.

He told the inquiry: “I understood that this limit was the maximum contract value permissible under EU procurement regulations, above which KCTMO would have to follow a compliant procurement process in selecting consultants”. So 50% of the fees were deferred to keep the among billed below £174K.

That would have taken more time, and it was also likely that the favoured supplier, Studio E, would not have won the bid as it had little relevant experience, having not “been involved in high-rise residential, heating renewal nor the overcladding of occupied buildings.”

This artificial manipulation of contract value is almost certainly illegal under EU and UK regulations.  Buyers are not allowed to “artificially disaggregate” contracts to avoid the thresholds, for instance by breaking up a large requirement into multiple smaller ones purely to get around the rules. Deferring fees is somewhat different but arguably is an even more blatant method for avoiding the formal process.

It is a myth however that a contract value under the EU threshold means you don’t need to worry about competition. Whilst you don’t need to jump through all the hoops, buyers are still bound by principles of transparency, openness and fairness, and should show that they have used appropriate competitive processes given the size and risk of the contract. Clearly, that didn’t happen here. But just because a contract is “only” worth £170K, it doesn’t mean you can just give it to a supplier without competition.

The other puzzle here is exactly why KCTMO were so keen on Studio E winning the work. Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, said that after the firm had designed the neighbouring Kensington Aldridge academy, selecting them was “cheap, convenient, quick, even though Grenfell Tower was a completely different kind of project with different challenges”.  So, there is no hint of corruption there, although it was at best a poor decision, and an illegal one, as we’ve said.

Whilst we can’t say that the Grenfell disaster happened purely because of this open and shut case of bad buying, it is at the very least an indication of the tragic consequences that can result from poor supplier selection decisions. It is also a lesson that avoiding procurement regulations sometimes seems an easy way out; but it can have major consequences.