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Pulling the plug on private water

A little known body at the World Bank is behind the privatisation of water worldwide. Vicky Cann exposes it to public view.

December 1, 2007
4 min read

Never heard of the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility? Well that’s not surprising. For the past eight years PPIAF has managed to operate in obscurity, funding consultants to advise on how to bring in the private sector to operate public services and build infrastructure in poor countries.

Its none-too-snappy name and low-profile location – tucked away in the World Bank – have meant that few of us have heard of the PPIAF, let alone understood what it is up to. But this has been a mistake. While its expenditure is relatively small in global terms, its influence has been immense.

To take just one sector, water, in 24 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, the PPIAF has funded consultants to advise on privatisation options or the legal and institutional changes required for privatisation.

In most of these countries, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or other aid donors have also imposed water privatisation as a condition in return for debt relief or aid. Most shockingly of all, in 16 poor countries, the PPIAF has organised thinly veiled pro-privatisation PR campaigns, which it describes as ‘consensus building’ projects, to support water privatisation processes.

Workshops, conferences and public awareness campaigns have been organised to persuade parliamentarians, civil society, trade unions and anyone else likely to disagree that privatisation reforms are needed. Indeed, the PPIAF admits that as civil society resistance to privatisation has grown, its consensus building work has increased, just to keep up.

Journalists, too, have been the target of consensus building. In 2000, the PPIAF funded a communications programme for 32 African journalists. As well as a workshop in Durban (themes included, ‘Changing institutions and involving the private sector’), there was an email discussion group, and the group was flown to the World Water Forum in the Netherlands, an event heavily influenced by the water industry lobby.

This year in Malawi, a PPIAF project will design a strategy to ensure ‘communication and participation’ in the reform of two public water boards. And the nature of these reforms? In late 2006, Malawian campaigners saw a leaked cabinet paper that proposed privatisation for the water board in Blantyre. This was no surprise: after all, a previous PPIAF project had recommended leasing the water board to a private sector operator in 2003.

The PPIAF is not just active in Africa. In Paraguay, despite public protest and a parliamentary vote against water privatisation, the IMF is still pushing for a management contract for the main water utility. It has been aided by PPIAF projects in 2000 and 2005.

But the PPIAF’s anonymity is coming to an end. Following a report last year by the World Development Movement and the Norwegian NGO, FIVAS, campaigners now have the organisation firmly in their sights.

And the 12 governments that fund it are coming under increasing pressure to review their support. Already, the Norwegian government has said that it no longer views the PPIAF as a means of solving the problem of access to water for the poor and that it will no longer fund it. Other donors are expressing concern too.

Unfortunately, the UK government is not among them. The UK created the PPIAF in 1999 and by 2008, it will have contributed a whopping £53 million to its activities. The PPIAF is essentially a New Labour creation and the UK’s defence of it may have a familiar ring: ‘The PPIAF does not push privatisation; it supports developing country governments to … harness the full potential of public/private partnerships.’

As anti-water privatisation campaigns gather pace around the world, and further evidence comes to light of the failure of the private sector to connect the world’s poorest people to affordable water, campaigners are getting ready to rebut the spin of the PPIAF. When it held its annual meeting in the Netherlands in May, campaigners were present and watching.

Across the world public water providers are delivering clean water to poor communities at prices they can afford, reinvesting profits and involving communities in managing their own water. These providers need our support. What is needed is faith in the public sector to deliver; support to enable successful public utilities in poor countries to share their expertise with other providers; and significantly more finance for the water sector, to reverse the recent decline in aid.

As for the PPIAF, it is time to pull the plug.

The World Development Movement report on PPIAF can be downloaded from: www.wdm.org.uk/resources/reports/water/downthedrainreport26112006.pdf

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