Dr Anita Ramgutty Wong
… in the Right Place is one of those stock phrases that we Mauritians are so fond of. Gender considerations observed, the phrase is a powerfully evocative one, employed to express faith in leadership qualities. How do you control the scourge of drugs? RMRP! Want efficiency in Parastatals? RMRP! When and how will corruption stop? RMRP heading the institutions! Young people uninterested in active politics? All we need is the RMRP to inspire them! How to get our society to be cohesive, harmonious, full of hope for the future? Put the Right Man in that Right Place!
Just the other day I heard this lovely phrase uttered by a radio commentator on the matter of privatisation of our water and wastewater utility. At first I thought the timing of the matter a little odd, to be honest, given the predictably populist and generous measures we may begin to expect as the next general elections loom closer. But there might just be a logical link after all, if you will bear with me until the end. The question of privatising water (and sanitation) has been a historically controversial one across the globe, often bringing about passionate conflicts in its wake and even widespread and lasting discontent and distrust amongst social partners and in the population.
At the outset, let us clarify that outright and full privatisation of entire entities such as those responsible for water supply are rather the exception these days, with the “PPP” (Public-Private Partnership), in some form or other, being the more popular route taken by governments to address the problems of water supply and distribution. In the current Mauritian case, it appears that the contract would be one of “affermage”, in other words, a lease contract with a private operator to run the system. Many people tend to feel an intuitive shock at hearing that some public utility or other is in the privatisation pipeline. And indeed, notwithstanding that a water utility is a huge, complex undertaking, and notwithstanding that the service in question is our most essential, precious, life-preserving aqua, it ought not to be all that surprising, in fact. One only has to look at the numerous forms of privatisation of services constantly in operation to have an idea of the general attitude or philosophy of public authorities about what must remain under public management and what must or may be run by the private sector : catering, cleaning, refuse collection, construction of roads, drains, and such, are frequently contracted “out”, ostentatiously for reasons of economic efficiency or pragmatism or plain convenience. We also know that many of these private operators do not always comply with safety, quality and customer service norms and that often there is inadequate control of their targets, delivery and performance.
But why privatise the operations of a whole entity? And why disturb sacred cows like a water utility? I am reminded of something that my lecturer warned me about during a class on systems analysis for my Diplôme d’Informatique: computerisation is not the solution for solving dysfunctions in a current system. I tend to think that, like computerisation, privatisation is often perceived as the panacea for sorting out a mighty mess in the system, but it often is not the solution.
We have to know that millions of people around the world are served by private water companies. I am using the broad term ‘privatised’ services, because there really are many types of agreements between a public entity and private company for the operation of a water utility. Around the world, and often under the aid conditionalities of the World Bank or the IMF, governments have privatised their public water and sanitation entities in the hope that the cost of water distribution may be brought down, that more people may be reached and served.
In some cases, only part of the population is served by private companies, such as only a few cities, and in other cases the services exclude waste water management. In yet other cases, however, privatised water has been re-nationalised, and in some countries there are no private water companies at all, while the Netherlands, Nicaragua and Uruguay have even passed laws to ban water from being privatised. In 2019, Austria went as far as to make it unconstitutional to privatise water. So why privatise? If we look at the form that the contract takes we may generally find therein the motive: for example, a management or lease contract is more often than not considered as the solution to improve service quality and increase economic efficiency.
Sometimes a government may also, out of ideology, be pro-capitalistic and prefer to allow “market forces” to play a more significant role in the provision of services, under the assumption that the service provider would want to seek profit by improving efficiency and quality. With all the cases studied around the world, it is now well known that such an assumption is a misguided belief. With only one private company playing in the game, there is nothing that says prices will be maintained or go down or that service quality will improve, since there will be no competition from other providers. And, we may assume that such a company would be a large international firm, with shareholders perhaps in different parts of the world. Will they care to ensure water is no longer wasted in antiquated pipes, that sewage is not ending up in rivers and in lagoons, and that our drinking water is 100% safe? Will they be happy to invest more of their company’s money in building better infrastructure to tackle leaks and extend distribution? As well, it would be useful to realise that the very argument of taking “measures” to improve efficiency and service quality quite simply points to poor management of the water system, symptoms of which we are painfully and persistently facing as citizens, year in and year out. Everyone, ministers and general managers alike, arrive at the same analysis, and lofty goals are set repeatedly to address inefficiency issues, and to “preserve our precious water for the generations to come.” This year, at an announcement of the Water Resources Bill, we are informed that the “whole water supply chain” will be “redesigned” and that several “projects” are being set up to reduce the impact of water deficits. Is the biggest project of all privatisation? Will such a project truly meet the public’s expectations, such as the Philippines’ success story in Manila, where two concession contracts have led to significant improvements in access, efficiency and service quality of water supply?
In our case, I rather think that the political promise of round-the-clock water supply to the whole population was made with little appreciation of the magnitude of such a task. Like chiselling away at a massive mountain is bound to get anyone discouraged, looking around for options to manage a resource-bulimic water utility and to not disappoint la popilasion quite naturally points to privatisation as a handy device to meet that promise. What better to get rid of the cumbersome and costly water management than to hand it over to a large, experienced, company? However, many things can go wrong, as experience from around the world has shown, therefore we must, if really going down this road, ensure the necessary clauses are specified, implemented, monitored and evaluated. Thus, we demand that access be expanded to all areas of the island, service quality be improved, with no water cuts or intermittent supply, tariffs to not increase beyond a certain level, investments be made to infrastructural development and sustainable water harvesting be promoted with clear quantitative targets. But wait a minute, if it were possible for some public body/entity to make sure that all this does happen, then surely it means that we are capable of ensuring proper management in the first place, so why bother ourselves with regulating and monitoring another entity’s work when we can do the job ourselves? Can we, though? Paris discovered that it could. Fourteen years ago, the city got rid of private water operators that failed to provide satisfaction, but even more importantly, by re-municipalising its water services, it promoted the public service, its values, and, ultimately, its capacity to be more efficient and innovative than private companies. We must not forget that the SIDS in Numbers report of the UN has predicted that Mauritius will be a water-stressed country by 2025, so managing our water is no trifling matter to be handled without thorough and ongoing public conversations and consultations. What do we know of the ecological status of our rivers, boreholes, lagoons? Has the public been asked if they want water in public or private ownership?
I believe that our institutions deserve to be considered as public goods. What is valued by the People is what must be translated into public policy, expenditure, and attention. We know it: an entity that is considered valuable receives the funds, the best brains, the best leader, the best rewards and packages. If water were considered important enough, we would surely have a Board with an understanding and a care for the entity, with a proper strategic plan, a Chief to lead the troops with energy and a keen sense of organisation, with room to manoeuvre, free of political pressure, to hire competent and dedicated staff, keep them trained, motivated and engaged, with the required behaviours (no ABCD-ers please!), a Chief who would have the guts to truly manage performance “without fear or favour”, driving a culture of service and integrity. Now that would be a Right Man or Woman in the Right Place!