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Poverty and citizenship: Sociological perspectives on water services and public-private participation

Lookup NU author(s): Emeritus Professor Esteban CastroORCiD



This article focuses on the arguments used to support private sector participation (PSP) in the provision of water and sanitation services (WSS) since the 1980s. It addresses the following questions: what was the historical evidence informing the claim that promoting PSP would be the best instrument for reducing water poverty? What are the principles that provided the foundation for this claim? And, what has been the empirical record of the resulting WSS policies? It argues that early neoliberal WSS policies since the 1980s were not intended to expand services to the poor. A pro-poor rhetoric was added to these policies since the 1990s, probably as a result of increasing citizen unrest in developing countries and the failure of privatized WSS projects in the Americas and Europe. However, the claim that PSP can provide the solution to public sector failure in extending coverage of essential WSS to the poor has little ground both in the theoretical literature and in the historical record. As could have been expected from the accumulated knowledge about the relationship between market-driven WSS and the poor, the recent experience with PSP projects has been disappointing. In practice these policies not only have failed to extend these essential services to the poor but have also contributed to deepening existing inequalities of power resulting in the weakening of state, local government, and civil society capacities to exercise democratic control over private water monopolies in most developing countries. Reversing this imbalance is one of the crucial challenges ahead in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. However, the article argues that the inertial forces set in motion by the neoliberal model of water policy based on market-centred governance of water and WSS remains the crucial obstacle for the achievement of the goals. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Castro JE

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Geoforum

Year: 2007

Volume: 38

Issue: 5

Pages: 756-771

ISSN (print): 0016-7185

ISSN (electronic): 1872-9398


DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2005.12.006


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