Pipe dreams – The failure of the private sector to invest in water services in developing countries


“Young plants need rain, businesses need investment.
Our old industries are like dry crops and privatisation brings the rain.
When the harvest comes, there is plenty for everyone …
Investors are on the team, risking everything they own
And betting that we can succeed.”

These lyrics are taken from a 2001 pop song called Ubinafsishaji (meaning ‘privatisation’ in Kiswahili) which was produced by privatisation consultants Adam Smith International (ASI) and paid for with thousands of pounds of UK overseas aid money. Its aim was to persuade a sceptical

Tanzanian population about the benefits of the donor-driven privatisation programme. As ASI explain on their website, this song describes “how the world is getting smaller, how we are all more dependent on one another, and how privatisation completes a three-way partnership of government regulation, private sector expertise and investment, and consumers reaping the benefits”.

Providing investment; making available the funds needed to connect over a billion people to water and sanitation; doing what governments were either unwilling or unable to do. This was the promise of the private sector on which the last 15 years of donor policy has been based. And the seeming logic of the proposition, backed by the easy rhetoric of ‘competition and efficiency’ has proven attractive to donor parliaments, the media and the public. Likewise, for the poor, any promise of a connection in or near your home has to sound good when you are trekking miles for water or buying from expensive street vendors even if you instinctively baulk at the prospect of handing control of public services to foreign companies.

Courtesy of PSIRU