Tuesday, March 17, 2009

World Bank presents a new study evaluating the water privatization experiences at the Forum – covering up a biased neoliberal “science” and inquiry.

On the first day of the World Water Forum the World Bank together with the International Water Association kicked of their efforts over the next week by focusing on privatization of water and sanitation services, as so many previous Forums’ have before them. This took place at the session called “Towards a Vibrant Local Market Place – Opportunities and trends, experiences to date, and policy options for the future”. Philippe Marin from the World Bank opened the “ball” by presenting what he termed an extensive study of experiences with privatization contracts based on objective analysis. This provides a smoke screen disguising the neoliberal biased “scientific” approach.

The World Bank study acknowledged that privatization has not been the magic formula it was wrongly presented as by the Bank in the early 90s. This represents a more defensive and careful approach to the history writing of the experiences with privatization, often having been arrogant and in denial of the flaws and the disastrous outcomes of such a strategy for poor people lacking the ability to pay increased tariffs. However, ignorant is still an appropriate word to describe the methodology and the way this study was conducted. On those premises it is not surprising that the overall conclusion is that privatization reforms still should and can contribute to ensure access to water.

The World Bank is still walking down the same path, characterized by a fixation with quantitative data in the form of measuring rates of bill collection, non revenue water, water losses and other indicator of so called “efficiency”. At the outset of the presentation Marin emphasized that the study was undertaken on the basis of “objective performance data”. In other word the World Bank continues to think inside the box, where “efficiency” measurement is “king”. This is not objective, as wrongfully claimed – but instead tied to an ideological obsession within the Bank related to neoliberal ideas about operational and economic efficiency without also looking at and integrating social and welfare considerations. It is not only a numbers game, but must also take into account the qualitative (data) context in developing countries. Consequently, important aspects are bypassed - following the World Bank’s mode of thought and line of inquiry – such as the fact that poor people often do not have ability to pay for the increased prices in the wake of implementing privatization. Thus, privatization leads to a real and substantial socio-economic exclusion from the deadly important access to water and sanitation. Running counter to this Marin was still claiming that “price increase does not mean anything”. The comment was a response to the findings of the (still quantitative) report data showing that a tariff increases followed the act of privatization in all cases. Marin explained “that this was of course not surprisingly when earning money is what private companies is set out to do”, like he was a rocket scientist.

The neglect of socio-economic contextual issues was rejected by water justice activists in the audience, as was also the depolitization of the study presented. The political and democratic citizenship aspects and a lack of substantial participation were not addressed. It is tune with the World Bank overall attempts, in water and other sectors, to consistently depolitize the debate about development.

This takes us to the a more general remark, which is the total lack of taking the political context into consideration - not looking at implications of relative power differences, where the interests of private, wealthy consumers is favored over disempowered poor people - neither providing them with cross subsidized services nor a voice. Again, this is ideological and value laded corresponding to a neoliberal individualistic and voluntaristic approach where power difference and structural economic/political constraint for poor people is absent. Therefore, there is a need to look beyond the immediate hang-up with numbers and figures, also incorporating an analysis of structures that leads to economic and political unevenness. This might for example be neoliberal discursive ideology or the economic structures pressuring for complying with a “demand” of being competitive in an international economy. Both might lead to cut-backs in welfare and social spending, hindering subsidized access to water for poor people, in an effort to follow the mantra of national macro-economic stability and tight social budgets. For the last and final time, this is revealing the underlying and covered-up ideologically neoliberal “scientific” bias of the alleged “objective performance data” in the study on privatization. If this was a genuine attempt and desire to study the experiences with water privatization, it should at least have been undertaken by the World Bank’s independent evaluation office. But then I guess the outcome would not have been as the Bank intended, when they and we are aware that the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department have put forward a critique and a different conclusion in a (2005) report summarising recent evaluations of the World Bank’s “development effectiveness”. The report states that the record of attempts to unbundle and privatise infrastructure has been poor, especially in water (privatising ineffective government corporations has been very mixed, and ‘voucher privatisation’ has been the worst of all). It also says that “the record shows persistent over-optimism on privatization” and recommends a rethink on the private provision of infrastructure.

No comments: