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Over at “social enterprise” website NextBillion, Jemima Sy of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program posted an interesting article debunking “Five Myths About the Business of Sanitation“. While I hardly disagree on some of the debunkings – for instance, it is true that poor people don’t see much value in minor upgrades, and instead want to go the whole nine yards when they pay for water and sanitation – the overriding conclusion that water and sanitation can and should be more of a business just ruffled my feathers. As a response, here are my Five Myths of the World Bank’s Approach to Water and Sanitation:

1. “Water and sanitation are untapped business opportunities.” Myth. Most of the privatisation efforts under Structural Adjustment went badly. Networks usually weren’t expanded, many companies didn’t even manage to make a profit. Water and sanitation work badly as businesses.

2. “Water and sanitation are private problems.” Myth. Clean water and environments are actually a public good. They have large public benefits which households cannot privately capture, and therefore are best tackled through public interventions. Read the rest of this entry »

Social and cultural engagements with water have become a rapidly expanding research area. A workshop at the University of York will take water’s various forms and the politics around them as an invitation for postgraduates to present diverse critical perspectives on water’s social meanings.

The keynote speaker is Kimberley Peters, Lecturer in Human Geography at Aberystwyth University, and the workshop concludes with a roundtable discussion led by Professor Graham Huggan of the School of English at the University of Leeds. Abstracts of 250 words for 20 minute papers should be sent by 13 September.

  • Type: Postgrad conference call for papers.
  • Deadline: 13 September 2013.
  • Event date: 25 October2013.
  • Location: University of York, UK.


Last Friday, European Union (EU) Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier announced the decision to exclude water and sanitation services from a planned Directive on concessions (contracts with private companies over the provision of public services). Water will be exempt, not because the EU believes it was a mistake to include it in its plans for private provision, but because the citizenry misunderstood the EU’s intentions.

Shining example of market-based water supply (with unclear prospects in Europe)

(Source: Stougard. CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The announcement came against a backdrop of protests in several countries against the privatisation of water, and the first “European Citizens’ Initiative” to reach quorum. Nearly 1.5 million EU citizens signed the petition (still open) to exclude water and sanitation from internal market rules and ensure the universal right to water; though participation was massively skewed towards one country, Germany.

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You use it whenever you need it. You want it to be clean. You sit down, you stand, or you squat. You use paper, or maybe water. You flush… and whatever your business there may have been, it disappears. You leave, you wash your hands. So simple… you take it for granted.

If you’re lucky.

Any traveler to another continent soon learns that the toilet is a highly cultural thing. Sanitation is a cultural practice. Sometimes even a trip from one country to another is enough to cause mild shock and awe – for instance, how every German holiday-maker in France feels when they (re-)discover the French squat toilet. Or how a French traveler feels when discovering the German “Flachspüler“. Or the Irish, when voting on the Lisbon Treaty. Toilets are deeply culturally embedded, so much that Slavoj Žižek has a special theory about their differences and their effects on national mindsets, politics, and philosophical traditions.

Westerners have a lot to learn

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Actor Matt Damon makes it sound like a great idea to give small loans to poor families so they can get access to improved water and sanitation. After all, he is the co-founder of the NGO, promoters of the WaterCredit loan:

“Gary, my partner, pioneered this idea of, you give people loans. So, for instance, in a place like India in a slum, the municipality will be pumping water right through the street … If you could give them a loan to connect directly to the municipality, so you pipe the water directly into their house, a 75 Dollar loan, they use that time that they were wasting waiting in line for water – working, they pay off the loan at rates of like 98 percent, 99 percent. And they’re using that time in a more productive way.”

He makes it sound easy and appealing. And it is appealing. I’m sure Matt Damon, who is known for ardently supporting social causes, sees this as a real solution. The trouble is, his model doesn’t tackle the fundamental problems – like piped water actually being in the slum in the first place, which it normally isn’t. Damon also doesn’t contemplate the fairness of asking the poor to pay for this human right with a loan. Will the poor want to pay? Will they even be able to pay? This idea of microfinance for water and sanitation may make an already unfair state of affairs even unfairer.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to present a paper at the University of Pula, which was later picked up by Microfinance Focus in a nice article. Since then, the ideas presented in that paper have mushroomed and matured into a more thorough, comprehensive and analytical (and 158.1% larger) piece, which has now appeared as a Discussion Paper in the MPIfG’s series. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s great to know that people take note of the ideas we share on this blog. In April, I posted an entry introducing a paper I had recently presented in Croatia, called “Attempting the Production of Public Goods through Microfinance: The Case of Water and Sanitation“. The argument was that water and sanitation, because they have the characteristics of public goods, cannot be provided adequately via private individual credit like microfinance loans.

In a thoughtful article on Katya Jenkins recently re-iterated this point (and quoted the paper). Her basic argument: some organisations are reporting successes, but we have good reasons to be skeptical, and it might not work in every case.

Jenkins makes one very important point at the end, which is that there may be a better case for small self-financing in water and sanitation if we were talking about community systems. Agreed. But microfinance organisations would have to adapt their business models a lot, giving out much larger loans (€ millions rather than hundreds), being far more patient with repayments (slower repayment means slower turnover means lower profits), and actually bothering to “know” their clients’ business (instead of easy and cheap “no questions asked” lending). That’s a long shot from today’s microfinance, even if a select few organisations like ProCredit have taken the step into SME finance; and probably “microfinance” would be the wrong name for it. Read the rest of this entry »

Practically everyone has heard the proverbial story of poor a Bangladeshi or Nigerian taking out a microloan to, say, buy a few chickens or start a small business selling mangoes, and becoming a wealthy and successful farm entrepreneur or fruit trade mogul. There is even a picture book for children about that story.

Picture books, however, don’t make the story any more real or representative. This blog has been critical of microfinance success stories in the past, because they mislead people into generalising from a few exceptional success cases (see also Tim Ogden’s smart analysis of the consequences of misleading storytelling). More generally, the blog has been critical of microfinance because not everyone who takes a loan can make a profit on a business venture and use the profit to repay the loan plus interest; very few will benefit spectacularly from this, and their successes do not equal “development”.

But donor bodies increasingly expect microfinance to become the centerpiece of development. Proposals for microfinance to reach beyond small-business-lending and into the traditional remits of the state abound. Microcredit loans are being suggested and applied by various agencies for generating access to a range of goods and services linked to development, from sending kids to school, creating better health, improving water and sanitation, to even helping with peace and reconciliation. Using microfinance for water and sanitation has been an area of particular focus (here is one prominent example, with its own success stories). Read the rest of this entry »

“Water, like oil, is finite. There is only so much ocean saltwater, glacier freshwater and water in the air, while global consumption is growing twice as fast as the world’s population.”

It would be hard to believe that anyone could view these facts as a positive thing. But add the story of Warren Buffet, former world’s richest man, buying the water treatment company Nalco for US$ 3.7 billion through his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, and suddenly you get that “investing in water is an untapped opportunity”. So argues journalist Tatiana Serafin on in an article entitled “Invest Like a Billionaire: Water Is The New Gold“.

Serafin considers publicly traded water utilities firms a bargain, quoting another author as saying “utilities are cheaper than they have ever been”. Her conclusion is, “invest like Buffet”, even if you’re on a budget.

One could also think that viewing the so-called global water crisis – which I recently wrote about here on World Water Day – as a hot investment opportunity would require the shrewd and narrow-minded perspective of the investment banking profession. Yet even the Netherlands-based IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, an important resource centre in the water and development sphere, and at least not officially posing as a private sector think-tank, apparently agrees that water is “the new gold”. On its water and sanitation financing blog WASH news finance, the article quoted above was merely copied and uncritically reproduced.

This, among other cases from the NGO sector, shows how strategies of privatisation and commodification still heavily dominate development politics where they pertain to water. Though less aggressively and more subtly pursued now than the IFI-driven Structural Adjustment Programs and their successors, PRSPs, the new-millennium logic of privatisation is promoted instead by smaller, ostensibly unconnected agencies and through new, seemingly innovative means such as decentralisation, downscaling or microfinance – essentially a return to the days before the developmentalist state. Through blogs and social networks, the politics of liberalisation have adopted a postmodern aesthetic – as always arguing in the name of the poor – complete with Internet videos in HD.

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Today is World Water Day; this year operating under the heading “Clean Water for a Healthy World”. Every year since 1995, March 22 has been dedicated to “focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources“.

The 2010 events campaign focuses specifically on raising awareness of the importance of water quality for health and human well-being, and the importance of sound water management for preventing pollution.

While that means that this year the World Water Day has no specific focus on the developing world, a global view onto water problems always naturally draws attention to the specific the problems of the developing world, where not only most of the people lacking access to safe drinking water live, where desertification and pollution are worst, and where water-borne diseases are most prevalent – just to give a few examples – but also the technical and financial means for dealing with the causes and consequences of the “water crisis” /1/ are slimmest.

In 2003, the United Nations Economic and Social Council codified a Human Right to Water in its General Comment No. 15, based on the interpretation of the pre-existing International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stated:

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.

Yet, this right remains unclaimable in many poor countries, both as a result of the failure of the international community to support the necessary steps financially, and because of a competing paradigm of “full cost recovery”. This is reason enough to have a cursory look today at the transnational governance and provision systems of water and sanitation for the poor.

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
February 2017
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