When it comes to development, Public Private Partnerships give us a lot to wonder about

We have seen the social contract between state and citizen morph into a contract between state and private finance.

Crystal Simeoni
4 October 2019, 10.45am
Bill Gates speaks during a meeting for Financing for Development, September 2019
Evan Schneider/DPA/PA Images

This article is part of the 'Advancing gender just economies' series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

The opening ceremony of the Financing for Development High Level Dialogue was held on the 26th of September 2019 in New York. It was the first high level dialogue since the adoption of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. Dinah Musindarwezo from Woman Kind attended and asked about civil society organisations (CSOs):

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The opening key note addresses were made by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo – the president of Ghana, Ms. Sola David-Borha (Standard Chartered bank Africa Region CEO) and Bill Gates (who many a time needs no introduction). A more perfect picture of the trajectory of African development could not have been painted. Those of us in the trenches fighting for development justice have seen the social contract between state and citizen slowly morph into a contract between state and private finance, and citizens continue to be made invisible.

Civil society many times brings the voices of citizens into these spaces of power and so Dinah’s questioning the absence of civil society in the opening panel further brings to fore the disappearance of citizen voice and agency in developmental planning. The keynote addresses were made by an African president, an American billionaire turned philanthropist and a bank representative. This is a snapshot of who is making decisions about my life as an African woman – without me.

The current entry point for private finance into African countries is through the phenomena of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). The current landscape that Africa exists in is one where there is a lack of adequate development assistance and declining revenues through leakages like Illicit Financial Flows that sees Africa losing a conservative figure of $100 billion a year. This coupled with pressure from international financial institutions like the World Bank propositioning private finance for development means that African governments are giving into PPPs as the quickest and most “efficient” way to solve problems to provide public services and infrastructure to citizens.

The World Bank is currently pushing its vision of “maximising finance for development” as a way to ensure the resourcing of the realisation of the SDGs. It is basically pushing the narrative around private finance for public problems. In asking questions around power differentials, I wonder what it means for the World Bank and the power it carries to be pushing this narrative.

Profit is what drives private finance, which then should lead us to question why we are entrusting it to provide citizens with schools, hospitals, roads, rails, housing. As Africans, we should also be alive to what nuances and perceptions this brings. As a comrade in the space Titus Gwemende has asked: “does it mean that the African state is inherently and perpetually incapable and ineffective and that the private sector which is really big foreign business is the solution?”. It then leaves me wondering what that means in creating power dynamics.

Philip Alston, the UN special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has argued that private finance is more expensive than public finance. He warns : “public-private partnerships can also incur high design, management and transactional costs due to their complexity and the need for external advice”. Phillip Hammond in the his 2018 British budget speech announced: “"I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer," he said, "but there is compelling evidence that the private finance initiative does neither ... I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2." This makes me wonder then why PPP’s should be a solution to development for my continent yet, the British treasury doesn’t seem to think it is for them?

Additionally, PPPs are proving to have a differentiated impact on the women and girls of Africa. If maternal health and the provisions of contraceptives for example are not profitable to private finance, where does that leave the women of Africa? Who is to be held accountable when mothers cannot afford to pay a user fee in the latest PPP hospital that comes up in her city?

My country Kenya now has a PPP unit which is a department under the ministry of Treasury that is officially responsible for championing PPPs in Kenya and in light of what I have written here, it makes me wonder about a lot of things.

I am not alone in questioning and analysing what is happening from a feminist approach. FEMNET together with the Gender and Development Network (GADN) and Eurodad have questioned if PPPs can actually deliver gender equality. The Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) has started a body of work specifically on this phenomenon ... and there are more. I am in good company questioning power and working to provide workable alternatives to current macro level economic policies and processes.

I will be taking these thoughts and questions with me to Washington for the World Bank Annuals this October. Follow me on @crystalsimeoni on Twitter to see if I find any answers.

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