Aid being delivered to remote communities in Colombia; source: ColombiaCompra/Twitter

Emergency buying: Colombia’s digital approach to COVID-19

Colombia Compra Eficiente | Agencia Nacional de Contratación Pública,

6 minute read

Colombia’s procurement agency has developed a range of digital tools to improve competition, efficiency, and transparency during the pandemic


  • existing public procurement tools can be adapted to meet new demands
  • sharing open data is essential to allow public monitoring
  • aggregated buying can help ensure value for money

The problem

On Friday, 6 March 2020 Colombia recorded its first case of COVID-19 and joined the global scramble to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other essential supplies.

As well as facing the universal challenge of finding these items on the open market, the country was also emerging from an epidemic of corruption (PDF) in public procurement.

Years of careful reform had made Colombia a pioneer in using digital tools to encourage transparency and accountability. However, the extreme urgency of the pandemic was about to put these systems to the test.

While emergency procedures are needed, they must remain publicly accountable for every contract concluded and spent. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent.

Open Contracting Partnership

The approach

On March 17 2020 Colombia’s President Ivan Duque declared a state of emergency. As well as measures aimed to limit the spread of the virus, the order relaxed many rules around public procurement.

Under conditions of ‘manifest urgency’ or force majeure, this meant that contracts could be awarded directly to suppliers and approvals and funding could be fast-tracked.

While these approaches can help source supplies faster, they can also raise corruption risks such as price gouging, bribery and the delivery of poor-quality products.

Colombia’s public buying agency, Colombia Compra Eficiente (CCE), looked into how to use its experience with digital tools to help accelerate the process while also ensuring transparency and value for money.

Buyers were encouraged to use CCE’s existing eProcurement platform and guidance from the World Health Organisation to prioritise needs, verify supplier details and check prices.

In addition, several new resources were developed including:

  • a framework agreement for suppliers providing COVID-19-related products and services
  • an ‘aggregated buying tool’ or online catalogue enabling bulk buying of emergency materials such as PPE, disinfection services medical equipment
  • a dedicated website to allow public monitoring of contracts awarded during the pandemic

CCE Jose Andres Omeara announces the launch of the Aggregated Buying Tool on March 25 2020; image source: CCE Twitter

Guidance for buyers emphasised that contract information must be published openly including:

  • a clear description of goods, services or works with technical specifications, quantity and quality required
  • the unit price and total value of goods or services contracted
  • who signed and approved the contract
  • how the contract would be supervised

To ensure they were searchable online, the word “COVID-19” had to be used in the title of any contract associated with buying during the pandemic.

The results

Using the new digital tools has allowed CCE to streamline buying during the pandemic while also enabling transparency.

Results so far have included:

  • 251 suppliers joining the COVID-19 framework, 90% of which are small or medium-sized businesses
  • 127bn pesos (US$34m) worth of sales made through the aggregated buying tool
  • average savings of 14% for buyers using the tool verus the open market
  • 142,000 emergency contracts published using open data standards

CCE launched these tools within 3 weeks of the pandemic hitting Colombia, a process that would normally take 4-6 months of development. That it was able to do so was thanks to having a scalable and adaptable eProcurement system in place before the crisis began.

Covid cases growing across Latin America: image source Google News/Wikipedia

The challenges

As the pandemic took hold in Latin America over the summer of 2020, public buying came under increasing scrutiny and corruption scandals began to emerge. In May arrest warrants were issued for 10 Colombian mayors, following incidents of widespread overcharging for essential products.

That the authorities could uncover incidents such as these was thanks in part to an informed public, with access to open data on government buying. This allows those who want to monitor ongoing procurements in real time and report any potential irregularities anonymously.

The pandemic actually provides an opportunity for countries to strengthen anti-corruption and integrity, and so improve overall governance.

U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre

Next steps

As of August 2020 Colombia was seeing unprecedented use of its e-Procurement system and continued to provide access to the aggregated buying tool.

The country has also been one of the most innovative in using technology to help tackle the challenges of the pandemic, for example using AI to monitor the use of face-masks and experimenting with blockchain technology to prevent corruption.

For more information on how CCE created the aggregated buying tool watch their youtube video.