Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 11: Public-Public Partnerships in Water

Introduction

A public-public partnership (PUP) is a twinning arrangement, with a stated non-profit motive, that aims to improve public water services in one or more of the partner regions. By definition, PUPs can include only public partners (though this has been challenged of late with the introduction of “Water Operator Partnerships,” as discussed below). The PUP concept officially emerged as a potential alternative to public-private partnerships (P3s) in water around 2000, though the idea of inter-public collaboration has a much longer history. Interest in water PUPs has since grown significantly, chiefly as a result of research by Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU). ********* Workers digging hole in street. Photo credit: AcedoutA public-public partnership (PUP) is a twinning arrangement, with a stated non-profit motive, that aims to improve public water services in one or more of the partner regions. By definition, PUPs can include only public partners (though this has been challenged of late with the introduction of “Water Operator Partnerships,” as discussed below). The PUP concept officially emerged as a potential alternative to public-private partnerships (P3s) in water around 2000, though the idea of inter-public collaboration has a much longer history. Interest in water PUPs has since grown significantly, chiefly as a result of research by Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU). PUPs can be typologized according to partnership arrangement. In brief, PUP actors are termed “public,” but that simply means they are non-profit and not from the private sector. A PUP does not have to be between government-run public authorities, such as two municipal water utilities; it can also include community-based organizations (CBOs), public sector trade unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The second way to typologize PUPs is according to objectives. Partners link up to achieve a wide variety of aims; these are grouped into a few broad goals in the following list.

Typology of PUP Objectives

For each broad goal (infrastructure goals, capacity goals, and so on), specific PUP objectives are given.
  • Infrastructure goals
    • expand water infrastructure
    • make services more efficient and equitable
    • develop knowledge and confidence among municipal workers
  • Capacity goals
    • improve administrative systems
    • improve social tariff setting
  • Financial goals
    • develop alternative financing mechanisms
    • empower the public operator and protect against privatization
  • Political goals
    • make public services more democratic
The sheer variety of partnership arrangements and objectives can make PUPs a flexible and powerful alternative to privatization. The partnering of public operators can enable knowledge-sharing that builds technical expertise and in turn improves the quality and efficiency of service. South-South PUPs can help increase infrastructure expansion into unserviced areas by matching municipalities that have solved this challenge with those that are still struggling. The inclusion of actors such as CBOs and trade unions can make services more democratic. Giving a greater voice to the millions of people who currently lack access to safe water can encourage governments to expand services. Critics of PUPs point out that they are not a panacea for problems with urban water services. First, there is a question of financing. While North-South partnerships may be funded by the high-income country, South-South PUPs may struggle to finance travel of required personnel between the countries. Coordination is also an issue; most municipal utilities operate in isolation from one another, making it difficult to find an appropriate partner. For PUPs to occur on a global scale, an international partnering mechanism must be developed. One group currently supporting partnering is the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, or UNSGAB. However, UNSGAB has taken the PUP idea and turned it into “Water Operator Partnerships,” or WOPs. The most problematic aspect of WOPs is that they explicitly allow private sector partners, although all actors must work on a non-profit basis. Besides negating the political goal of PUPs to protect against privatization of public services, WOPs may lead to a watering-down of the initial progressive-alternative concepts of PUPs. A final challenge for PUPs is their ability to resist the commercialization and corporatization of public sector utilities. Running a public water utility like a private business, even one that remains under state ownership, can put at risk the potential benefits of PUPs. To conclude, PUPs can be seen as a step forward from PPPs, but if the goal is to provide water for all, a deeper discussion must be had about what “public” means and ways must be found to provide water in an equitable, socially just and sustainable manner.

Questions

  • How can we work to promote PUPs effectively with policy makers and governments?
  • How can PUPs help resolve some of the financing challenges of public utilities?
  • How can water justice movements assist in the sharing of PUP-related information and strategies among public water utilities?

Notes and Links

  • Hall, David, Jane Lethbridge and Emanuele Lobina. (2005). “Public-Public Partnerships in Health and Essential Services’ Municipal Services Project,” Occasional Papers No. 9. Series eds. David A. McDonald and Greg D. Ruiters, Cape Town.
  • Transnational Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory. (2006). Public Water for All: The role of public-public partnerships. A “Reclaiming Public Water” discussion paper.
  • Water Operator Parterships” (2007). UNSGAB Water and Sanitation.
  • World Development Movement. (2007). EU – Go public on the global water crisis. Supporter Briefing. London: World Development Movement.