Alternatives to Privatisation

Public options for essential services in the Global South
28 March 2012

A book for practitioners, unionists, social movements and analysts who are seeking reliable knowledge on what kinds of public models work and their main strengths and weaknesses.

  • 978-0-415-88668-0

In the ongoing debates about privatisation, it is often argued that those who oppose private sector involvement in service delivery do not present concrete alternatives. There is some truth to this claim, springing in part from the deep impoverishment of debate since the onset of neoliberalism, which pronounced that “there is no alternative” to privatisation. This also needs to be seen in contrast to the 1930s, and the post-World War II period when there was a strong sense of the limits and dangers of excessive domination of society by unfettered markets and private sector service provision and much greater scope for understanding the limits of capitalism and the use of state powers to ensure social integration and secure basic needs and wants.

Yet in the recent past, with the limits to privatisation and financialization becoming more apparent, a burgeoning field of enquiry around alternatives has emerged, albeit in a fragmented and inconsistent way. Social movements have developed powerful rhetoric – such as “another world is possible” and “there must be alternatives” – but with little detail on how alternatives are constructed, to what extent they are reproducible, and what normative values might guide them (if any). The literature and practices that do speak directly to “alternatives to privatisation” tend to be highly localised and sector-specific and lacking in conceptual and methodological consistency, leading to interesting but somewhat variegated case studies.

This book is an attempt to help fill this analytical and empirical gap by synthesising existing work and generating new conceptual frameworks, which directly address questions of what constitutes alternatives, what makes them successful (or not), what improvements have been achieved, and what lessons are to be learned for future service delivery debates.

The analysis is backed up by a comprehensive examination of initiatives in over 50 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It covers three sectors – health care, water/sanitation, and electricity – and is the first global survey of its kind, providing a more rigorous and robust platform for evaluating alternatives than has existed to date and allowing for better (though still challenging) comparisons across regions and sectors.

Although our research focuses on particular sectors in particular regions, the findings are relevant to other services and to other parts of the world, at least in broad conceptual terms. Information of this type is urgently required by practitioners, unionists, social movements, and analysts alike, all of whom are seeking reliable knowledge on what kinds of public models work and their main strengths and weaknesses.

Academically rigorous as well as accessible to policy makers, activists, and others familiar with the debates on privatisation and its alternatives

To this end, the book is intended as a first step in a multipronged research process. The findings presented here offer a preliminary review of the scope and character of “successful” alternatives in the different regions and sec- tors investigated, while at the same time providing a testing ground for conceptual frameworks and research methods.

Subsequent research will provide more fine-tuned case studies in sectors and regions identified from this research to be of particular interest, with a focus on key themes that have emerged from the studies (such as the trend towards remunicipalising water services and the tensions inherent in corporatised service delivery models). The book is therefore a starting point, not an endpoint, and is intended to act as a guide for our own future research as well as a catalyst for others.

The orientation of the research is academic but has involved activists, unionists, social movements, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from the outset. As with previous research by the Municipal Services Project,1 the involvement of frontline workers, service users, policy makers, and others has been an essential part of the design and implementation of research, as well as of outputs and outreach. The perspectives and practices brought to the table by these various groups, based in various regions and sectors, complicate the traditional academic process, but the outcome is much richer for it.

The book has thus been written to be academically rigorous but also to be accessible to policy makers, analysts, unionists, activists, and others familiar with the debates on privatisation and its alternatives. Not all chapters will resonate with all readers, but the intention is that the book will help advance our understanding of alternatives to privatisation in general and stimulate further research in this critically important area.

The book has been divided into three sections.

The first looks at conceptual questions around the nature of the state in service provision, the role of labour and social movements, gendered outcomes of different service mechanisms, and the ways in which neoliberal practices and ideologies construct and constrict the push for alternative delivery systems.

The second section is an empirical review of alternative models of service delivery broken down by region (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) and sector (health care, water/ sanitation, and electricity).

In this latter section, regionally based research teams were asked to identify as many “successful” alternatives as they could find in a given region and sector, categorise them according to predefined Introduction 3 typologies, and evaluate their achievements based on a set of normative criteria. The book concludes with a chapter that summarises the findings of the research and points to future directions for study, policy, and activism.


Details on the book can be found at the following:

The book will also be published in India by Leftword Books, and will soon be available in Spanish at the MSP and TNI websites.

Pages: 520