Congresswoman wants to halt and investigate World Bank’s private water investments

(Steve Johnson/flickr)

The practice of the World Bank both advising countries on water and investing in private water companies presents a concerning conflict of interest, said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., in a letter addressed to World Bank head Jim Kim. In it, Moore urges the Bank to immediately “cease promoting privatization of water resources until there has been a robust outside evaluation.”

“I am increasingly uneasy with water resource privatization in developing countries and do not believe that the current ring-fencing policies separating the investment and advising functions of the [International Finance Corporation] are adequate,” she writes. “I would respectfully urge the WBG and IFC to cease promoting and funding privatization of water resources, including so-called ‘public-private partnerships’ in the water sector, until there has been a robust outside evaluation.”

Moore serves as the ranking member of the monetary policy and trade subcommittee of the House financial services committee, the body in the federal government tasked with overseeing the World Bank. Her concerns stem from the activities carried out by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank. She and other advocates say that the IFC is making profit-driven investments in private water companies at the same time that the World Bank is advising countries to work with the private sector to improve access to clean water.

The letter cites the example of Manila, Philippines, where the country started working with two private water companies in 1997, based on IFC advice. The IFC then went on to invest in the Manila Water Corporation, one of the two companies, which has yielded a $43 million profit thanks to rate hikes nearing 850 percent. Attempts to increase prices further were stopped by regulators, but the company is pursuing the ability to raise rates through various appeals.

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“I would be less troubled with the structure of the Manila deal and the subsequent arbitration if I had full confidence that both were not products of the improper mingling of the advisory and investment functions,” Moore said.

There does not seem to be agreement on this issue. The investment in the Manila Water Corporation is touted by the IFC as a success story for public-private partnerships. It is labeled as an inclusive business model that helped reach more than 1.7 million people and provide uninterrupted water access for 99 percent of customers. The water operation is also held up for transforming from a money-losing to a money-making business.

When asked to comment on Moore’s letter, communications officer Geoffrey Keele said that the IFC is working on a formal response to the Congresswoman first before making public comments. He directed Humanosphere to a page on the IFC website that addresses some of the concerns about its work on public-private partnerships in the water sector. It says that governments are not required to privatize water supplies in order to gain access to loans.

“We were happy to receive the letter from Congresswoman Moore as it provides us an opportunity to engage with her on these important issues,” Keele told Humanosphere.

But it is the privatization projects in countries like Nigeria, the Philippines and India that concern advocates, like Corporate Accountability International. It has called for the World bank to completely divest from private water corporations. The “Chinese wall” that the IFC says separates its advisory and investment work is not adequate, they argue. And at the core, water should not be privatized.

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“Water is this essential human need and fundamental human right – it must be democratically accountable,” said Nathaniel Flaschner Meyer, senior international water organizer at Corporate Accountability International, to Humanosphere. “This conflict of interest is particularly egregious when it comes to something fundamental like water.”

These concerns are not new. For years, Corporate Accountability International and others have campaigned against these World Bank water investments. Another letter published in June 2015 signed by 23 members of Congress raised questions about water privatization in Lagos, Nigeria. It points to examples from the cities of Detroit and Baltimore, where the prioritization of profit led to people having their water shut off.

Moore signed onto the letter and has remained interested in the issue overall. Her letter today expands further on the earlier concerns and adds new pressure on the IFC.

“By shedding light on the conflict of interest inherent in the World Bank’s investment and advisory services related to water, it is time that this vital financial institution stop funding and promoting corporate control of water pending an extensive external evaluation of IFC conflicts of interest as well as congressional hearings,” wrote Moore.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.