Public water and electricity are back in vogue. Yet, many state-owned utilities are now undergoing “corporatization,” i.e. they have legal autonomy and manage their own finances. Is this a positive development in the struggle for equitable public services or a slippery slope toward privatization? Sometimes driven by neoliberal agendas, there are examples of corporatization that could herald a brighter future for equity-oriented public services.
The Municipal Services Project, both a scholarly and activist network based at Kingston University (Ontario, Canada), recently released a book, a blog post and a video, presenting the results of in-depth research dealing with the issue of corporatization, based on six cases from Asia, Africa and Latin America (Tunisia, The Philippines, Malaysia, Burkina Faso, Uruguay and Costa Rica). The book, Rethinking Corporatization and Public Services in the Global South (edited by David McDonald, Zed Books, 2014) critically examines the histories, structures, ideologies and social impacts of corporatization in the water and electricity sectors. The book also interrogates the extent to which it can move beyond commercial goals to deliver progressive public services.
STEG, the Tunisian public company for electricity and gas, is a good example to consider. Created in 1962, it has since operated as a major tool for national integration, as well as for social and economic development. Rural and urban electrification is among its main achievements. Since the 1990s, the company has followed a more commercial-oriented approach, placing tariffs at a level to reflect the full production costs, while preventing the growth of the staff. Such a policy, referred to as “contractualization” with the state, can be regarded as corporatization. After the Tunisian revolution of 2011, the new managerial orientation the company had to implement, and its ensuing conditions, are challenging this policy. On the one hand, STEG hired numerous new employees. On the other hand, it is under financial pressure due to non-payment and to the aggressions on workers by angry disconnected subscribers. The energy transition toward renewable energy, and pressures from international money funders, are pushing for a liberalization of the electricity sector at a time where increasing energy demand makes large scale investments necessary. STEG is thus at a turning point of its history.
The book’s Table of Contents is listed below, as well as links to available online content.
1. Public ambiguity and the multiple meanings of corporatization, David A. McDonald
2. An exceptional electricity company in an atypical social democracy: Costa Rica’s ICE, Daniel Chavez
3. Hybrid water governance in Burkina Faso: the ONEA experience, Catherine Baron
Available in French: "Corporatisation" dans le secteur de l`eau potable: l`ONEA, une expérience inédite en Afrique de l`Ouest
4. An "Arab Spring" for corporatization? Tunisia`s national electricity company (STEG), Ali Bennasr and Eric Verdeil
Available in French: Un printemps arabe pour la corporatisation? La société tunisienne de l`électricité et du gaz
5. Modernization and the boundaries of public water in Uruguay, Susan Spronk, Carlos Crespo and Marcela Olivera
6. Can “public” survive corporatization? The case of TNB in Malaysia, Nepomuceno A. Malaluan
7. Quasi-public: water districts in The Philippines, Buenaventura B. Dargantes, Victor G. Chiong, Hedda P. Dargantes and Elsie B. Mira
8. Corporatization in the European water sector: lessons for the global South, Emanuele Lobina and David Hall
9. Corporatization is dead ... long live corporatization? David A. McDonald
[Rethinking Corporatization and Public Services in the Global South can be ordered here.]