Making Public in a Privatized World: The Struggle for Essential Services

Making Public in a Privatized World: The Struggle for Essential Services

by David McDonald (Editor)


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In the wake of recent widespread failures of privatization efforts, many communities in the global south now seek new, progressive ways to revitalize the public sector. From rural Guatemalan towns holding the state accountable for public health to an alliance of waste pickers in India and decentralized solar electricity initiatives in Africa, people worldwide are rising up with innovative public service solutions to difficult issues.
Making Public in a Privatized World explores all of these cases and more, with essays that uncover the radically different ways grassroots movements have proved themselves as successful alternatives of essential public services where privatized efforts have failed. Using numerous in-depth case studies, this book offers probing insights from a diverse range of contributors from across the world, including academics, activists, unionists, and social movement organizers. A timely collection, Making Public in a Privatized World addresses the growing worldwide interest in exciting alternatives to privatization in both developed and developing countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783604821
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David McDonald is professor of global development studies at Queen’s University, Canada. He is also co-director of the Municipal Services Project, a research initiative exploring alternatives to the privatization of service provision in electricity, health, water, and sanitation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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Making Public in a Privatized World

The Struggle for Essential Services

By David A. McDonald

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 David A. McDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-486-9



David A. McDonald

What is a public? It is a curiously obscure question, considering that few things have been more important in the development of modernity.

Michael Warner (2002, 49)

After more than three decades of privatization, the world has begun to see a revival of public provision of essential services such as water, energy and healthcare (Chavez and Torres 2014; Clò et al. 2013;Florio 2013; Wollmann 2011). The reasons for this trend are as varied as the people and places involved, and much work remains to be done in coming to grips with the complexity and diversity of what is happening on the ground.

This book is an attempt to advance our understanding of present-day efforts to (re)make public services, through case studies and an effort to conceptualize what bonds them together. With a focus on countries in the South, and a broad cross-section of actors and sectors, the chapters range from Colombia to Uganda, from bureaucrats to trade unionists, and from waste management to electricity. The people and institutions surveyed here represent a mere fraction of a much larger international reality, but they exemplify the varied – if tension-laden – ways in which essential public services are being (re)construed and (re)constructed around the world.

In some cases these initiatives are a response to failed privatization. In others they are a reaction to weak or non-existent state-delivered services. Some are about latent possibilities awaiting realization. In all cases, the chapters go beyond a mere critique of what is wrong with privatization to an assessment of what constitutes 'good' services, how people 'make' them in the face of ongoing neoliberalization, and what it means to be 'public'. Although it is important to keep a close eye on the ever-shifting nature of private sector engagement in service provision, fulfilling the promise of building alternatives requires more than just criticism.

Following Ferguson (2009, 167), the chapters in this book ask what happens if politics is not just about 'expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want? Then we progressives must ask: what do we want? This is a quite different question (and a far more difficult question) than: what are we against?'

What do we want?

There are no easy answers to this query, and the examples in this book serve to demonstrate just how far we are from a coherent, collective response to what constitutes a good public service. Some chapters highlight the potential of revitalizing state resources while others focus on the need to build capacity among quasi-public, non-state actors. Some authors are universalistic in their approach while others emphasize the context-specific nature of change. In some cases the outcomes are the result of long-term, high-profile struggles for a different world view, while in others they are more pragmatic – even accidental. Often they represent little more than people scrambling for something better than the private enclosures they find themselves in, but these too can represent seeds of a new public imagination.

It is these commonplace expressions of public service reform that constitute the majority of cases in this book, and arguably the bulk of pro-public-service movements in the world today. They are not always as dramatic as one might expect from such a highly politicized topic, but they reveal the daily grind of making change, and the nerve-wracking ups and downs of progress. From indigenous communities holding states accountable for better public health services in rural Guatemala, to locally controlled solar electricity in Kenya, to incorporating informal reclaimers into a public waste management system in India, the cases shine light on the complex, often incongruous and always interesting ways in which people are building actually existing alternatives to privatization.

The case studies also help shake up conventional understandings of our landscapes of choice. Many anti-privatization movements have called for state ownership and management of services as a response to the ills of privatization. But what happens when the state does not act in the broader public interest (Budds and McGranahan 2003;Cumbers 2012; Grugel and Riggirozzi 2012)? Although states have extended water, healthcare and other important public services to vast swathes of the world's population (at various levels), they have never been as universal or equitable as sometimes claimed. Many have been top-down, paternalistic systems that could not adequately accommodate for diversity, often intended to address the crises of capital accumulation (via the extension of a commodified mass consumption society) as opposed to any moral commitment to universal access (Esping-Anderson 1990; Offe 1972).

Better resources for strong and more accountable state services should be fought for where appropriate, but we must not wax nostalgic about public management models that have at times been exclusionary, opaque and blindly productivist in their orientation (Newman and Clarke 2009). As Ferguson (2009, 169) notes in the African context, 'calls for reinstating old-style developmental states ... are understandable in the wake of neoliberal restructuring ... but I am skeptical that this is an adequate response – partly because the supposedly developmental states I know from the 1970s in Africa were pretty awful, and partly because I doubt that you can run history backward.'

And what of the trend toward corporatization? In these cases, services are fully owned and operated by the state, but they are financially and managerially ring-fenced from government and increasingly run on market-oriented principles such as full cost recovery and performance-based remuneration (Kickert 2001;OECD 2005; Shirley 1999). As part of a broader set of neoliberal reforms brought about by 'new public management', corporatization has arguably affected a much larger proportion and range of public services around the world than direct private sector involvement, often serving to achieve the same aims (such as reducing taxes, creating multi-tiered levels of service, and introducing labour flexibility) without the political controversies (Aivazian, Ge and Qui2005; Blum and Ullman 2012; van Rooyen and Hall 2007). Not all corporatized services have been run on these principles (McDonald2014), but three decades of neoliberal restructuring have fundamentally transformed state-led services in ideological and organizational terms around the world, making calls for an expansion of – or return to – state ownership of public services problematic.

And what happens when the state simply does not exist or is too weak to provide services, as is the case in many parts of the South? Capacity building and additional financing are essential, but in many places it will take years, perhaps decades, to create the organizational and fiscal capacities to extend state-owned and state-operated services at scale. In some cases this governance vacuum has been filled by non-governmental organizations, community associations, labour unions, faith assemblies and others operating on a not-for-profit basis. These groups are private in the sense that they function on behalf of a clearly defined population (based on geographic, ethnic, employment or other designations) but can operate in the interests of a broader public. They can also operate in partnership with one another (sometimes across municipal and national jurisdictions), or with the state, in what are referred to as community–community partnerships or public–community partnerships (Allen 2012; Maurer and Smith 2012). The case studies in this book are illustrative of all these possibilities, demonstrating the growing diversity of new forms of public services that fall somewhere between the extremes of privatization and the monolith of the developmental state.

There is much to be celebrated in this burgeoning public service praxis. Struggles for new and different public models are rich in their variety and vigorous in their grassroots deliberation. For some, this is a necessary development, insisting that there should be no universalistic, pre-determined notion of what it means to be public: 'Democratic conceptions of the common good will always be partial and provisional, never universal or static ... the common good can never be specified a priori as an input for the political system or as a static measure for the quality of governance' (Dahl and Soss 2012, 31). If we are to arrive at new answers to what we want from our public services they can only be discovered through democratic political struggle, and they remain contested as much as shared.

I support this commitment to democratic process and contingency. As Mahoney and Clarke (2013, 92) note, if the goal is to 'collectively create new kinds of public futures out of the conflicts of the current moment, it will be vital to recognize and robustly engage with how different versions of "crisis" work to imagine, address and position "the public"'. The chapters in this book are an attempt to do just that: identify and critically understand different expressions of public service transformation.

However, without some core shared principles and definitions we run the risk of falling into public service relativism, whereby anything declared 'public' is good, with no objective reference points for evaluating these claims theoretically or empirically. Such open-ended contingency permits the defence of poorly run or undemocratic state services. It also allows for the promotion of heavily commercialized state-owned utilities that are run on market principles, often allowing governments to maintain a public façade while deepening the commodification of services at home and even seeking for-profit contracts outside of their own jurisdiction (Gentle 2009; Magdahl 2012).

At the other extreme is an anti-state position that questions the potential for any form of progressive state-led public service, often fetishizing notions of community. Much of the writing on 'the commons', for example, shares the belief that 'collective management by communities' is preferable to that of 'market and state failures' (Bakker 2007, 441, emphasis added). States are seen to be 'inefficient and untrustworthy' while communities are 'the most reliable sources of social innovation' (McCarthy 2005, 18).

This is not to dismiss the potential for non-state actors to play a progressive role in the delivery of essential services. My point is simply to illustrate once again how far we are from a counter-consensus on this thing we call 'public', and in answering the question 'What do we want?' In the end there is little that unites these calls for a commons beyond 'their assertion of collective ownership and rights against relentless privatization and commodification' (McCarthy 2005, 11).

Advancing publicness

Perhaps the best we can ask for at this stage is a shared distrust of commercialization. But if we are to develop an effective pro-public voice (a point I return to in Chapter 15) we can, and must, advance common reference points for alternatives. My proposal, drawing on previous research, is to focus on public service outcomes rather than getting bogged down in a priori debates about organizational form (McDonald 2014; McDonald and Ruiters 2012; Pigeon et al. 2012). This is not a theory of public service per se, but a methodological framework for establishing shared boundaries for what constitutes good service results, regardless of the type of public entity that produces them.

Table 1.1 outlines a set of normative criteria for evaluating the publicness of a service provider. Services that score well on these criteria would be considered to have a high degree of publicness (andtheir mode of delivery could be investigated for potential replication elsewhere). Those that do not could be rejected as inadequate (at least in their context) and in need of reform. This approach aims to balance the universal and the particular, establishing a common set of normative principles that can be applied everywhere but allowing for democratic process and local variation, circumventing the need for a divisive and controversial effort to develop an 'ideal' public service model. It can also be applied to different service sectors.

The criteria for these evaluations have been selected for two reasons. First, they are the closest thing we have to a consensus on good service delivery outcomes in the existing literature. There may be widespread disagreement on how services should be delivered, but virtually all public services models today share the (rhetorical) goals of universality, equity and accountability (Haque 2001; Molina and McKeown 2012; Pidd 2012; Pollitt 2000). These principles can be summarized by Beetham's (1987, 34) definition of public services as amenities that aim to be inclusive in their coverage, subject to public scrutiny, and developed according to a norm or public ethos that values citizen participation (although I have added a criterion for 'solidarity', which is not always found in the public services literature).

Second, we can reclaim and rework these criteria in progressive ways. The past 30 years have seen performance evaluations dominated by narrow economic metrics such as cost recovery ratios and labour productivity, as well as neoliberal terminology such as 'customer service', imported in no small measure from the private sector (Clarke et al. 2007). It is imperative that we break out of this discursive and fiscal trap. Finances should play a role in performance evaluation but they need not be the governing principle. Nor does the World Bank have a monopoly on how to define efficiency or accountability. As Wolff (2002, 3) notes: 'When and where an absolute efficiency calculus is believed to exist ... one particular group (or set of groups) has established its hegemony over others ... An absolutized efficiency calculus will be used by the social groups that support it as a weapon to suppress contending social groups, their social analyses, and their programs for social change.'

We must problematize and recover this conversational terrain to better understand ways of valuing public that go beyond the narrow tropes of financial accounting and private contract law. To do so requires the development of additional sub-criteria that offer more probing and critical insights into public service objectives. Measurements of efficiency, for example, could include social factors such as loss of livelihoods as a result of service cut-offs. Affordability can be measured in terms of how the cost of a service facilitates or denies its use by women. Participation can take into consideration the cultural appropriateness of consultation mechanisms within diverse settings. Neoliberal evaluations of utility performance may pay lip service to these kinds of evaluative criteria but they are typically sidelined in practice in favour of more commodified benchmarking metrics (Lefeber and Vietorisz 2007; Nove 2011; Triantafillou 2007).

There are dozens of critically important dimensions that could be added to mainstream evaluation systems in an effort to better reveal the strengths (and weaknesses) of pro-public alternatives. Not all of these criteria would be examined in every case, of course. Nor should we expect to find 'perfect' examples of public services. No single service provider can realistically excel at all of the potential criteria suggested here, and what may be seen as important in one place (e.g. community participation in budgeting decisions) may be less important in another. Nevertheless, it is possible to develop a common framework for evaluating pro-public services while at the same time recognizing that generalizations are fraught with cultural and political tensions that may be irreconcilable at times.

There is certainly a practical and political need for such an approach. As Harvey (2000, 94) notes with reference to the development of universal norms for human rights, 'To turn our backs on such universals at this stage in our history, however fraught or even tainted, is to turn our backs on all manner of prospects for political action.' Such expediency is all the more relevant in the world of service delivery, given the abject failures of privatization and the immediate life-and-death realities of health, water, sanitation and electricity affecting at least one third of the people on the planet. Applying universal concepts across different sectors and regions, while still allowing for local interpretation, is not only justifiable academically, it is necessary politically if we are to develop a coherent transnational dialogue about the kinds of alternative public services we want to see in the 21st century.


Excerpted from Making Public in a Privatized World by David A. McDonald. Copyright © 2016 David A. McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

List of figures and tables vii

Acknowledgements viii

List of abbreviations and acronyms ix

1 Introduction: the wonderful worlds of making public David A. McDonald 1

Part 1 Engaging Communities and Workers

2 Work of the ants: labour and community reinventing public water in Colombia Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier Susan Spronk Adrian Murray 23

3 Old trash, new ideas: public waste management and informal reclaimers Melanie Samson 41

4 Ships passing in the dark? Reigniting labour-community alliances for public services in South Africa Dale T. McKinley 59

5 Public health for indigenous peoples in Guatemala: monitoring from the bottom up Walter Flores 81

Part 2 Recognizing Quasi-Public Actors

6 Electrified publics and informal settlements in urban India Bipasha Baruah 99

7 Principles and pitfalls: searching for public in 'community-led total sanitation' Mary Galvin 117

8 Public faith: Christian and Muslim health services in Uganda Yoswa M. Dambisya Mulalo Manenzhe Allie B. Kibwika-Muyinda 132

Part 3 Promoting Equity and Democratic Control

9 Gender equity, citizenship and public water in Bangladesh Farhana Sultana Chandra Talpade Mohanty Sarah Miraglia 149

10 Struggling for public, reclaiming citizenship: everyday practices of access to water in Medellin, Colombia Marcela López 165

11 Public renewable energy in Africa: the potential for democratic electrification Sandra van Niekerk 179

Part 4 Financing Public Services

12 (Re)making public banks: the case of Turkey Thomas Marois Ali Riza Güngen 197

13 Pragmatic publics in the heartland of capitalism: local services in the United States Mildred E. Warner 218

14 Post-neoliberalism in Bolivia? Water sector reforms under Evo Morales Susan Spronk 234

15 Conclusion: building a global pro-public movement David A. McDonald 251

About the contributors 263

Index 266

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