Dangerous Liaisons?

The annual ‘Stockholm World Water Week’ has been and gone, where about 2,500 delegates from all over the world met in a glorified warehouse to discuss all things water and sanitation. Like most years, I attended, and was able to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience represented. My networking skills were honed and now, still some what exhaustedly, I have much to reflect on and mull over.

One subject that has seen a re-emergence recently is the issue of the role of the private or corporate sector. A decade or so ago this issue would have caused heated debate, with clear battle lines drawn on whether the private sector had any role to play in increasing access to water and sanitation services in developing countries. As an NGO, working with the private sector would have been considered a dangerous liaison. Driving up profits, protecting the interests of share holders and pursuing aggressive marketing tactics Vs not-for-profit, protecting the needs of poor and vulnerable people and pursuing community-led approaches – how can the two come together?

But the debate has moved on since then and it seems to be less about whether business should be involved but how. To start with, however, the term ‘involving the private sector’ is a broad brush statement that needs a lot of unpacking. What do we mean by the ‘private sector (for example, local enterprises or large international corporates?) and what kind of involvement (privatisation of utilities or corporate social responsibility?).

Whilst inStockholmI was involved in a session on NGOs partnering with the private sector in disaster relief. At Tearfund, we’re dipping our toe in the water and I gave a presentation about how we’ve been supporting a small, local company inHaiti, Gadyen Dlo. This support is aimed at increasing coverage of a household water treatment system (key to preventing another cholera outbreak) through assisting their marketing, advertising and production. The session was hosted by the NGO Mercy Corps and ITT Watermark, the corporate social responsibility arm of ITT- a multi-national corporation that has become one of the funders of Mercy Corps disaster risk reduction work. It was encouraging to hear about ITT Watermarks level of support and enthusiasm for their work with Mercy Corps but I was left wondering ‘what’s in it for them’?

No doubt ITT want to see increased markets for their water and wastewater products and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many INGOs focus their support in rural areas, helping communities to find their own solutions, whilst tackling large scale waste and water coverage in urban areas does need private sector investment to assist cash-strapped governments. Companies such as ITT Watermark can bring big bucks, but assistance needs to be appropriate to the context and wanted by the government and people, or we could be in danger of seeing another form of ‘tied aid’ wrapped up with a corporate social responsibility bow.

The role of the private sector in water and sanitation is an issue Tearfund has been thinking about for some time, including a joint research project with WaterAid back in 2003. Here we looked specifically at public-private partnerships and sought to gain a greater understanding of the practical implications for poor people. More recently, with our ‘Theory of Poverty’ (forthcoming) we affirm the distinct and important role of business in transformation of societies, whilst recognising the need for checks and balances, but not at the risk of creating cumbersome bureaucracy. This includes, for example, ensuring that the focus on growth and profit doesn’t override responsibility to the wider community. Equally, checks and balances also apply to the other key actors in transformation: civil society and government, so that the influence of all three sectors is used for the benefit of all rather than a few.

DFID has also placed renewed energy into the issue of tapping into the resources and expertise of the private sector and their latest policy, entitled ‘the engine of growth’, encapsulates the central role they think business can play. Indeed, as DFID points out, there are areas of mutual concern between development organisations and business such as developing markets that work for poor people, with solutions that are sustainable.

There are an increasing number of INGOs partnering with large companies, providing examples of both successes and failures as they’ve jointly have stepped out to take the risk –with some reaping great dividends for poor people. Tearfund’s main concern will always be poverty reduction and addressing the needs of poor people but we probably do need to re-think how we can engage with business, in the many forms this can take, and challenge ourselves to take some risks.

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