Water Operator Partnerships: an alternative to privatization?
IHE Delft short course participant Andrea Beck has published an article about Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs) in the journal WIREs Water. Relating to the work of the BEWOP project, her analysis draws on a global database to show that WOPs have become a proliferating partnership modality in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Do peer-learning partnerships present an alternative to public-private partnerships (PPPs) when it comes to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 and the human rights to water and sanitation?
In 2006, after about two decades of market-oriented policy experiments in the water sector, the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) proposed a new mechanism to accelerate progress toward the Millennium Development Goal target on drinking water and sanitation: Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs). Rather than substituting public operators with private entities and expertise, as is commonly done in public-private partnerships (PPPs), WOPs rely on not-for-profit exchange and peer-to-peer learning to strengthen the performance of public water and sanitation utilities.
Although the WOP idea has now been around for more than ten years, many questions remain open: How did this progressive proposal come about? How are WOPs institutionally anchored within the UN system? How widespread have they become today? Which operators are leading the initiative as “mentors”, and why, in our ostensibly neoliberal world, do these mentor operators share their know-how free-of-charge? What are the conditions that facilitate effective knowledge exchange and learning between water and sanitation operators, and how can we measure whether a WOP has been successful in the first place?
My review article is intended to serve as a first step in answering these questions. I begin by tracing the history of the WOP concept, suggesting that UNSGAB was internally divided over the role of the private sector in partnerships. While some board members were opposed to the inclusion of private operators in WOPs, private-sector representatives lobbied for their participation. A compromise was eventually reached, according to which private utilities could become active in WOPs as mentors as long as their activities conformed with the principles of solidarity, transparency, inclusiveness, and not-for-profit capacity building.
These early debates subsequently translated into the work of the Global WOPs Alliance (GWOPA), which was launched in 2009 as part of UN-Habitat. The ways in which WOPs are implemented have been criticized by a network of pro-public academics and activists affiliated with the Municipal Services Project, who fear that WOPs may be corrupted by neoliberal agendas of privatization and financialization.
Despite these controversies at the policy level, a global database maintained by GWOPA shows that WOPs are proliferating on the ground. More than 200 WOPs have now been formed between water and sanitation operators, and my analysis suggests that more than half of these partnerships (56 percent) can be seen as instances of South-South cooperation. While knowledge and resources in the water sector traditionally flowed from the global North to the global South, water and sanitation utilities in developing countries have started to subvert this pattern by supporting each other as peers.
The article closes by sketching out an agenda for future research. It proposes three main themes for closer scrutiny: the role of private operators in WOPs; the spatial-geographical patters of partnerships; and WOPs as a window onto larger questions of South-South cooperation. One of the key questions arising from my review is whether WOPs present a real alternative to the PPP model in the water sector, or whether they have become a tool for promoting profit-oriented interventions in disguise. In depth case studies, as well as a fuller understanding of leading mentor operators and their motives, could help illuminate this question.