William Kramer

Back to the Future: Oxfam Report Is More of the Same

Back to the future?Oxfam International has just published a report, “In the Public Interest: Health, Education and Water and Sanitation For All.” One can hardly dispute some its assumptions – it’s a scandal that people go without basic services, the money is theoretically there to solve problems, aid policies are often misguided, local governments have often proven incapable, incompetent, corrupt and uncommitted to their own citizens’ welfare.? But one can argue with their solution set…it’s like going back to the future.? ?

As I read this report, the private sector is seen as the enemy at worst and a wild beast to be caged at best, the profit motive as antithetical to welfare, and more aid as the solution.? The past and current failures of the public sector in the developing world to make headway in solving these problems for billions of people across all regions are acknowledged but then largely ignored.? The Oxfam doctor’s prescription is to throw more money at these self-same entities – but more consistently and in larger amounts. ?I find suspect their reading of the history of public service delivery (“only governments can reach the scale….”).? It wasn’t until the 19th century (or even the 20th, in many places) that governments in what are now the advanced industrial countries broadly took on the responsibility for services.? The public good notion had been lost for nearly two millennia, with the disappearance of the Roman Empire.? Public water, sewer and health systems (and “public” roads and transportation and electricity, too, for that matter) were largely stitched together piecemeal, over time, by absorbing many private sector ventures.? One can agree with Oxfam’s conclusion – that you need effective governments in order to make markets work equitably and universally – without subscribing to their nostrum.? The record of history suggests that Oxfam has it backwards – effective public infrastructure doesn’t usually come first; rather private usually precedes public.? With the pieces largely in place, then you can achieve equity and universality…if that is your goal. ?

The summary recommendations are written for a) developing country governments — to direct money (they don’t have) toward basic services, abolish fees for what minimal services they currently do provide (does this further erosion of the revenue base of water/sewer companies whether public or private make sense to anyone? Why is the notion of cost recovery such an anathema to Oxfam when the opposite clearly doesn’t work?), train workers (with crippled education systems, to fill government jobs that they can’t fund); b) to rich countries and the IFIs to give more money for these purposes; and c) to civil society to push for all of the above.? Recommendations for the private sector?? Or to civil society or the public sector as to how to engage the private sector in ways that actually deliver the public benefits they purport to support??? Sorry, nothing worth saying, apparently. Maybe this Oxfam team ought to have talked to the Oxfam team that wrote the Unilever Indonesia report.? Sigh.? Back to the future, indeed.? ?