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Knowing What We Do Like

by David McDonald — January 18, 2012

After 10 years of being critical of privatization it was time for a change. It can be depressing being negative all the time, and it felt like the debate on public versus private services was trapped in a stalemate.

I also knew there were hundreds of remarkable examples of innovative new forms of public service delivery all over the world, and decades’ worth of successful ‘old style’ public services. The problem was that these stories weren’t getting the airtime they deserved, and if they were it was often done in an ad hoc manner. There was little in the way of coordinated research on ‘alternatives to privatization’ and a need to get the word out to more people.

A global network in defense of public

So, here is a chance to bring together researchers, activists and practitioners who know about the dangers of privatization and are aware of the existence of progressive, equitable and sustainable forms of ‘public’ service delivery. This is the aim of the Municipal Services Project (MSP). We are a group of academics, NGOs, unions, social movements and policy makers who are committed to understanding the nature of public service delivery, how one defines ‘public’, and what makes it successful (or not).

We are not here to defend corrupt and inefficient forms of public services – and we are the first to admit they exist. Our goal is to understand what makes a non-private service work well, and to what extent it is reproducible in other places. We also want to spark dialogue across regions and sectors; what works in water in Latin America may have implications for health care in Asia, and it is important that there is a more global discussion about the meanings of good public services.

Staying critically positive

We also want this project – and this blog – to be ‘critically positive’. In other words, we want to highlight and celebrate good examples of public service delivery, but we want to do it in ways that recognize problems and failures, and makes recommendations for improvement. There is nothing to be gained from blind optimism.

Doing research on alternatives to privatization has not been an easy task, however. We find ourselves having to build conceptual models and research methods from the ground up, and it sometimes proves too easy to slip back into a mere critique of privatization. It can be easier to talk about what we don’t like than constructing arguments about what we do like.

With this in mind we invite you to share your experiences and opinions. It need not be ‘research’ but it should be about alternatives to privatization and ideas that help us better understand developments taking place on the ground in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

David McDonald is co-director of the MSP and professor of global development studies at Queen’s University in Canada.