The Case Against Privatization of Public Services: The UN Must Speak Up
By Maya Garner
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston stated that the private sector “should not take the lead in poverty alleviation.” Alston presented his report to the UN General Assembly on October 19 last year, which takes on a general stance against privatization of public services. The issue of privatization is of increasing global concern, yet remains an under-discussed topic among international decision-makers and governing bodies. The Special Rapporteur criticized the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and also the UN for promoting privatization without adequately addressing the possible effects on human rights issues.
Common definitions of privatization often fall short of capturing “the deeper processes of value transformation that are at play,” according to the Special Rapporteur Alston’s report. Specifically, privatization is when “all or substantially all the interests of a Government in a utility asset or a sector are transferred to the private sector.” Privatization may also include ideological and organizational transformations of the public sector. Broadly, privatization may include any private sector’s involvement in public services. When taking this latter definition into account, problems arise when it is determined that privatization is “premised on fundamentally different assumptions from those that underpin respect for human rights” and introduces “a profit motive to social protections that prioritizes efficiency concerns and transforms rights-holders into clients, marginalizing the poor or troubled and prioritizing those with less needs or who can afford to pay.”
The Special Rapporteur attributed the privatization of public services to a neoliberal economic policy. By shrinking the size of the state and reducing taxation to a minimum, the government would not be significant, allowing the private sector to be responsible as much as possible. In letting the private sector take over, there are potential ways the principles of a functioning democracy can be undermined. True democratic leaders are chosen with a people’s vote, resulting in more or less public control of the government’s management of public services. That is not the case in the private sector, unless buying habits should be considered the equivalent of casting votes. The public interests therefore ought to reflect the government’s role to care for its people, rather than having these entities be driven by a profit motive. The needs and goals for a society are simply identified differently, inadequately, by a profit-oriented cooperation. Furthermore, privatization is “premised on fundamentally different assumptions from those that underpin respect for human rights.” The Special Rapporteur highlighted the United States, which increasingly allow profit-driven private companies to run services for estimated 40 million people living in poverty in the U.S. He levels criticism at the “aggressive” promotion of neoliberal policies “aimed at shrinking the role of the State” by international organizations, including the UN. The UN has promoted public-private partnerships and private financing as a development goal.
Privatization affects issues such as criminal justice, education, healthcare, social services, utilities, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructure. The Special Rapporteur stated that “human rights advocates often shy away from asserting a human right to health, to water or to equal access to justice, for fear that such language might alienate conservatives, privatization advocates promiscuously invoke the language of freedom, property rights, autonomy and dignity, albeit often in ways that are entirely alien to agreed international human rights standards.” When considering social rights as being in perfect alignment with international conventions on human rights, the issue of privatization must be taken seriously by the international community, and should be prevented and condemned, rather than promoted, by the UN and other international organizations.
“It’s the poor who suffer the blunt of civil rights violations,” the Special Rapporteur stated in an interview. Like other human rights issues, the effect of privatization will negatively affect the poorest in society. Privatization results in services that will be available to those who can afford to pay for it, rather than providing services for the bettering of society. Governments, naturally, ought to have the obligation to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world; the private sector cannot live up to this responsibility dutifully. Privatizing healthcare, or education, results in the commodification of human rights, and often results in wrong priorities. However, some cases of privatization are more obviously against human rights values and well-functioning societies than others. The presence of private prisons creates an incentive in which inmates are valued by fact of being inmates, and thereby giving the prison a motivation is to increase the number of inmates and the length of sentences, rather than preparing individuals for reentering into society after their sentences have been served. A prison in an ideal society is a prison with no people in it; this is a goal that strictly contradicts the foundation of private prisons. More than transforming right-holders into customers, which is the case of other public services, private prisons transform people into commodities in a transaction over which they have no say.
The Special Rapporteur proposed that civil society should fight directly against harms of privatization and “reassert the centrality of concepts such as equality, society, the public interest and shared responsibilities,” citing the issue of human rights. Indeed, civil society ought to be in control of the democratic processes; civil society ought to be empowered to exercise control over public services through a democratic and transparent government, rather than being disempowered and losing this control to the private sector. The UN ought to live up to its founding principles and protect the rights of people worldwide, instead of shying away from people’s right to democracy and people’s social rights. In order to honor these principles, the UN must listen to their Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and incorporate anti-privatization policies into their development goals. The UN ought to acknowledge the damage caused by privatization of public services and work to prevent and reverse these trends on a global level.