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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform