I SPENT about 15 years researching (and criticising) the trend towards privatisation in postapartheid South Africa. Everything from water to roads to waste management has been increasingly run by the private sector, or operated using market ideologies, with dire consequences for the poor.
A heated debate still rages as to the extent and effect of this commercialisation in South Africa, but the battle lines and main players remain largely unchanged since the mid-1990s (although the post-Marikana wave may disrupt this).
What has changed is the desire to move beyond this rather stale debate, and to articulate alternatives to privatisation, not just criticism. It is important to note that this shift is driven by a remarkable growth in actual alternatives on the ground, and burgeoning research examining them.
The vast majority of these innovations in public services are taking place in Latin America, Asia and Europe, making a global perspective on the public-private debate essential. This is exactly what the Municipal Services Project has been doing for the past five years, conducting research in more than 60 countries on an extraordinarily diverse array of innovative public services, encompassing a wide range of actors and outcomes.
One need not look very hard to find poorly run or nonexistent public services, of course.
But rather than turning them over to the market, people are demanding improved public entities that take into account their desire to participate in decision-making, prioritising equity, and making service providers more transparent and accountable.
Some "alternatives" seek to prevent commercialisation of existing public enterprises, but many are trying to reconfigure what we think of as "public".
In Dhaka, Bangladesh a workers’ union took over control of water delivery from a private contractor in a district of the city. Service quality and quantity improved — as did payment rates from water users — and the municipal water authority has rethought its privatisation agenda.
In Turkey, there has been a revitalisation of state-owned banks, which now control about 30% of banking assets, collecting people’s savings and using them for domestic loans to fund public infrastructure, state-owned enterprises, agriculture, small trades, co-operatives, and so on.
In rural India, community-based monitoring of primary healthcare services has given voice to low-income villagers, creating effective forums for feedback and improvement. Public health officials have become more engaged in their work and more accountable to those they service.
Some changes to "publicness" have been achieved through legal campaigns, such as Uruguay’s constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to privatise water. In other cases it has been a matter of reclaiming essential services from the private sector, such as in Paris, Buenos Aires and Dar es Salaam, where water was taken back into public hands after decades of private operation.
Hundreds more municipalities are considering this option, while some have found themselves forced to remunicipalise when private companies flee, unable to realise the profits they have expected, or facing fierce public discontent over the rising costs of water.
Many alternatives to privatisation do not include the state, sometimes because state capacity does not exist or because people no longer trust their governments.
This is true in many parts of Uganda, for example, where faith-based health provision by Islamic and Christian hospitals has provided creative, nonprofit, public-oriented services.
Similar essential service initiatives are taking place in other parts of the world with trade unions, community groups and nongovernmental organisations, sometimes in tandem with governments, in the form of public-public partnerships.
None of these "public" services is perfect; no service ever is. But these innovative public entities have demonstrated the ability to provide effective, democratic and equity-oriented services — often in ideologically hostile environments — indicating the depth and breadth of alternatives to privatisation.
The challenge for academics and policy makers is to try to make sense of this growing trend, across regions and across very different service sectors.
Our approach has been to develop a rough outline of "norms" against which the performance of a particular public service can be evaluated, incorporating mainstream indicators such as financial efficiency, but expanding these to include social and environmental factors such as gender equity and resource sustainability.
These metrics are far from perfect, but they do allow us to start a new global dialogue about public service "success" that neither panders to the narrow performance indicators of neoliberalism, nor uncritically celebrates a public service simply because it is owned by the state.
South Africa has much to learn from the world in this regard. And much to teach it as well.
• David McDonald is professor of global development studies at Queen’s University, Canada, and co-director of the Municipal Services Project (MSP). The MSP is hosting a conference in Cape Town on April 13-15 titled "Putting Public in Public Services: Research, Action and Equity in the Global South", with 140 delegates from around the world.