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New perspectives on public services from the global South

by Urvashi Sarkar – Nov. 29, 2013
 
The task: Re-imagining public services and their meaning for the people, exposing the multiple ways of their appropriation by neoliberal forces, and suggesting possible alternatives to privatization.
 
The international conference on ‘Re-claiming and Re-imagining Public Services: Perspectives from the Global South’ held in the southern Indian city of Bangalore on Oct. 24-25 provided a snapshot of significant debates.
 

A Global South vision of public services

This conference was interesting for many of us because it laid out the existing understanding on public services and provided an alternate people-centric vision.
 
Re-imagining public services requires viewing the public – and not merely governments – as owners of these services, who also shape them and are involved in ensuring accountability. It entails introducing criteria such as equity, ecology, transparency, sustainability, workers’ rights and solidarity. 
 
Reclaiming public services implies removing the state from the clutches of capital and taking over the democratic governance of territories, natural human resources and institutions by communities.
 
Forging unity among the working people of the South and the North, who all confront neoliberal policies, is necessary for a new public services vision. And we cannot stop short of addressing the exclusion of large groups based on class, caste, gender, ethnicity and religion.
 

Alternatives to neoliberal forces in the making

Neoliberal governments across the globe are mounting an attack on public services through privatization, financialization, corporatization, commercialization and outsourcing of essential services to non-state actors, eating away at the solidarity and public good foundations of public services.
 
Some of the alternatives to stage off these trends that were elaborated on during the conference included public-community partnerships, strengthening labour-management cooperation within public utilities and strengthening links between government and civil society.
 
An interesting alternative was the example of community-based monitoring and planning (CBMP) of health in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
 
  • The CBMP method proved effective to reclaim public health systems in Maharashtra, and is now covering 13 districts in Maharashtra with committees in about 600 villages. CBMP committees include elected panchayat (local government) members, public health officials, NGO representatives and community members.
  • CBMP processes comprise community awareness programs, data gathering and preparing report cards to inform dialogues with health functionaries, etc. The ‘jansunwai’ or public hearing is another useful forum for people’s voices and to improve accountability.
  • CBMP areas have seen several improvements. More health functionaries are visiting villages, immunization coverage has improved, and inactive medical facilities are now functional. Some key problems have also been addressed. For instance, the undesirable practice of Primary Health Centres (PHCs) that prescribed medicine from private shops has mostly stopped, as has illegal charging of fees by medical officers.
  • The remaining challenges include resistance to CBMP accountability processes from the state health department, attempted dilution of civil society role and lack of institutionalized services.
The conference brought together the wide-ranging voices of grassroots activists, academics, government representatives and community workers to understand the new avatars of privatization, learn from ongoing resistances and sow the seeds for new and stronger ones. Alternatives are in the making.
 
Urvashi Sarkar is Program Coordinator at the South-South Knowledge Hub at ActionAid in Delhi and can be reached at urvashi.sarkar@actionaid.org. The conference declaration is available at: http://www.actionaid.org/india/latest-events/bengaluru-statement-re-claiming-and-re-imagining-public-services-global-south.