Public-private Partnership in Providing Water Services to Poor Communities: Built to Fly?

Sept 2003


Partnerships are being actively discussed at many international fora and sharply opposed positions are being adopted. At one level they are seen as the instruments to bring together the strengths of a variety of institutions in pursuit of social development, at another the abrogation of the responsibilities of the state and the ascendancy of the interests of the private sector. These contrasting positions were vigorously debated at the WSSD in Johannesburg where 'Type II' outcomes have been proposed with partnerships in place of binding and enforceable agreements.

The Business Partners for Development (BPD) which was formed in 1998 under the aegis of the World Bank aimed to put communities at the centre of sustainable development. Among experienced observers the conclusion is that has not generally been achieved. The BPD KwaZulu-Natal Project is, however, commonly seen to have been an unusual variation on the theme of tri-sectoral partnerships fostered by the Business Partners for Development internationally. The partnership has been described as "innovative", "explorative" and even "experimental"; and one of the tasks of evaluation has been to separate out what the similarities and differences have been with the general model of tri-sectoral partnership. The partnership has brought together the 'traditional' tri-sectoral partners of local government, NGOs and the private sector; but in addition also a wide variety of relevant partners including water service utility, the Water Research Commission, a university directed innovatory research project, and educational agencies. Around the foundation partners of the eThekwini and Msunduzi Councils, Mvula Trust and Vivendi Water; a cooperative agreement was drawn up which set out tasks, roles and responsibilities. The BPD KwaZulu-Natal Pilot Partnership which has been operating from March 1999 has now come to an end in March 2002.

As a pilot project, the partnership set itself fairly modest and concrete goals; but what was unusual about the arrangement was that the tasks were taken up tri-sectorally on a consensual and non-contractual basis. Unlike other projects in which the private sector was contracted by the state to provide services with the state standing back from close involvement (as in a concession), in this project each partner brought funding to the table and decisions on projects were made on a cooperative basis. The project attempted to sychronise technical with social activities towards the developmental goal of all-rounded provision of water services combined with health and hygiene for the urban poor. But in the nature of a pilot scheme relating to particular communities generally on the periphery of the city, the processes were explorative, and, while orientated to delivery, were not finally measured by progress on the ground. This is a key point which possibly has led to misunderstandings between the political leadership of the municipalities and the participants in the partnership. The former tended to see the partnership as a platform from which delivery would be launched at an accelerated pace and the latter saw the partnership as a cooperative agreement among fellow professionals to work together and learn new methods of work which would only be evident in higher levels of delivery in the future.

There has been a continual debate within the partnership over the relationship between knowledge sharing and learning and the need for measurable delivery. A majority of participants feel the partnership did not achieve higher levels of delivery and the matter is fully explored. There have been problems in delivery for two basic reasons: firstly there were problems in getting housing projects launched according to anticipated deadlines in Durban which in turn delayed the provision of water and sanitation, and secondly there were a series of internal problems relating mainly to funding difficulties of Mvula Trust. Despite these difficulties, there has been a relatively high level of delivery with 24 projects completed in Pietermaritzburg and 22 in Durban in a wide-ranging field including water loss management, free water, customer management, and health and hygiene awareness. During its three years of operation it initiated a large number of projects in upgrading of services, GIS of networks, education and awareness, water loss management, anaerobic baffle reactors, and in other spheres which have contributed to improving services in the areas where the Pilot Project was implemented and to a greater capacity for managing water services generally. These areas were situated generally on the outskirts of the city, in poor areas which were targeted for upgrading and development. Many of these projects, however, related to improved management of water services and coordination rather than direct impact at the community level. The consensus among the participants is that the Partnership has been a success even if all the initial targets were not met and delays have been experienced.

Despite difficulties the partners feel there has been a generally high level of project management and as the Partnership progressed more attention was given to benefits of collaboration, lessons were learnt, and (at times) there was a 'cross-over' of responsibilities. The Partnership took up forms of engagement with the growing numbers of poor on the periphery of the city facilitating higher levels of consultation and examined appropriate means of delivery. In Newtown, in the Msunduzi Council area, ground tanks were introduced and later modified after exploration with the community; this was regarded as the most significant technical innovation. Participants have found, however, that the greatest innovations have been institutional. At one level the partnership was first of all a collection of individuals who are bringing to the table professional commitment and preparedness to engage creatively with others, at another level it operated as a collaborative institution working within a rapidly changing political context.

The different components of the partnership; individuals, professionals, institutions, beneficiaries, government, civil society, and the private sector, were combined in different ways to build a partnership which was stated to be quite unique internationally. The question is how such a partnership was established, what dynamics were developed, and whether such a partnership has had a lasting effect on local government policy and practice.

An assessment of the evaluation has to examine its achievements and problems, its problem solving capacity, and the evidence of its successes and failures. It also has to explore the strategy of the partnership, what other possibilities were present, and its potential replicability. Despite the anticipations of many participants, the partnership did not culminate in a concession. To what extent can the private sector participate in service delivery in communities in which policy is vigorously contested? The arguments of key participants in relation to private sector engagement are examined in conclusion.