“Privatizing water in the neoLiberal age: the good is bad and the bad is good.”
by Andy Kusi-Appiah
QE scholar, 2019-2020
My grandmother once said to me:
“Son, always try to find something good about a situation and focus on it. For example if you see an ugly art work you do not like think about what you would like about the art work if you liked it, but if that doesn’t work ask yourself what must the people who like it be like?” It becomes an anthropological study of sorts.
In this era of neoliberalist thinking, which emphasizes the idea that government has no place in controlling the market and that the ‘freewill’ of the market will sort things out, privatization has become the dominant paradigm guiding international development policy (Bezner K.R., and Mkandawire, 2012). In this formulation, governments are encouraged to focus on economic efficiency and international competitiveness — initially through ‘rolling back’ the state, and increasingly through market provision of services and targeted interventions around social issues such as crime (Peck and Tickell, 2002; Saad-Filho and Johnston, 2005). These basic principles promote the idea of an economically motivated, rational human being who exchanges based on profits as the foundation for society (Griffin, 2007; Larner, 2000). This assumption excludes behaviours based on other types of motivation such as altruism, collectivist strategies, reciprocity, care, empathy for others and love (Ferber and Nelson, 2003). More than a set of policies, neoliberalism has been successful in shifting public perceptions about citizen entitlements, government efficiency, and the collective provision of social needs (Hay, 2004).
In this era, everything is subject to the privatization principle to the extent that even essential resources such as water is being privatized all over the globe. I try to be ‘objective’ (if there is such a thing) about those who support neoLiberal/colonialist policies that make it impossible for the vast majority of people, especially people in the so-called backward and heathen spaces/places, to have access to the very basic-naturally-occurring-resources which are needed for human existence.
What would I like about the idea of privatizing a basic human need like water? If I do not like anything I will try to understand the people who do like this policy or idea. It has become an anthropological study for me. I am trying to understand the people who trumpet the validity and viability of a policy that says we must allow people to go thirsty even if they cannot afford to buy that basic resource that appears freely on the surface of the earth (in the case of Malawi, almost 30% of the land mass is covered with water, fresh water that is).
I have to admit that this idea of privatizing things has a charm and sensible appeal to it since it puts the onus on the individual person (Homo economicus) to take responsibility of resources they consume. But why put a monetary value on something that is naturally needed for a human being to exist and survive on mother Earth in the first place? Those who like this policy must also be very sadistic in their outlook on life itself and the place of their fellow humans in it.
There is some truism in the argument that infrastructure developed to bring water to our homes is not free. Granted that such infrastructure cost a lot of money to provide and to maintain. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that the infrastructure is acquired with our own financial resources. Such means are accumulated through surplus value exacted from the labour of the same people who need the water to sustain and maintain a certain healthy demeanour in order to be productive for this generation and the next.Simply put, privatizing potable water is an unhealthy and unproductive policy which brings more misery and poverty to the same people we claim to be assisting. If we the people, those of us who claim to be intelligent and ‘educated’, become numb to the injustice that continue to impoverish the most important resource we can ever have – human resources – we become numb to the colonialist’s age old ploy to milk us dry using our own people (surrogates) as the conduit. The neoLiberalist/colonialist’s lies are ‘Orwellian’, in that what is true is false. Providing access to potable water is taboo, while privatizing a basic-naturally-occurring-resource is harmful/unsustainable. The neoLiberalist and his surrogate knows that their policies never work for the masses, but they accept the lies anyway because its implementation hardly affects them and their families. In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell criticizes political ‘doublespeak’ ad the mean-spiritedness of those whose responsibility it is to take care of the less fortunate in society. The future that George Orwell envisaged in 1949 is here with us. Big brother has decided that deception, brazenly misleading discourse, is now better than telling it the way it is.
What I do not get is how we can justify the hurt and the pain and all the waterborne diseases that marginalized people endure just because they cannot afford to buy a basic need such as water.
I still don’t get it!
About the writer
Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are in the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).