Home > Uncategorized > In the middle of a pandemic, the World Bank wants slum dwellers to lose their water supply

In the middle of a pandemic, the World Bank wants slum dwellers to lose their water supply

from  Norbert Häring

Developing countries are trying to contain the corona pandemic under the most adverse conditions. In the middle of this, the World Bank is proposing that the water supply of slum dwellers be cut off, if their landlords do not pay the water bill. It is an inhumane philosophy of development that is behind such monstrosities.

For about two decades, the World Bank’s philosophy has been “sustainable development”; “sustainable” in the sense of profitable in the long run. Wherever possible, development work should be carried out in partnership with private companies and their foundations, because only if some corporation can earn money sustainably from development policy will enough money flow in to make a lasting difference. The derivation from this is to privatize and commodify as much as possible, i.e. to make it a tradable commodity.

Thus, it is quite straightforward that in July 2020, in the middle of the corona pandemic, the World Bank would publish a scientific paper entitled “Enforcing Payment for Water and Sanitation Services in Nairobi’s Slums“.

The four authors, among them a World Bank economist, a former Argentinean Vice Minister of Finance, and the well-known experimental economist Paul Gertler from the University of California, ran one of the notorious Randomized Controlled Trials on poor Kenyan slum dwellers.

Strict enforcement through disconnections increases payment and the financial position of the utility without incurring political costs.

In the slums of Nairobi, most people live as tenants on plots of land with a common water supply for all. The landowners are responsible for the water bill. Through subsidies, the government has managed to connect most households at least to such collection points for running water. However, many landlords do not pay the bill and – partly because of this – the water is often strictly rationed.

In line with the World Bank philosophy focusing on commercial aspects, the four authors have tested, in cooperation with the water company, what happens when landowners are credibly threatened with water cut-offs. The direct victims of this are the tenants who are no longer getting water if the landlord still does not pay. Almost 30 percent of the plots in the “treated” group have had their water cut off. After nine months, in autumn 2019, shortly before the outbreak of the Corona crisis, “many” of the affected households had water again, the paper says, and further in the World Bank’s chilly  jargon: “There is a balance between ensuring that the disconnection is credible and economically meaningful to the customer, while also being flexible enough to allow for reasonable opportunities for remedial action.”

The result of the experimental intervention was that the payment morale of the “treated” landlords was increased, while at the same time the dreaded revolt of the slum dwellers did not take place. The authors’ conclusion: “Strict enforcement through disconnections increases payment and the financial position of the utility without incurring political costs.”

Access to clean water as a nice-to-have luxury

In the paper, the economists implicitly justify the approach, which many people will regard as cynical, by arguing that financially better equipped water suppliers are able to supply more people with water using less rationing. This is correct if one strictly follows the World Bank philosophy that everything should be produced and allocated using market mechanisms.

A fundamental right of access to clean water and other basic services, or a political promise by the government to guarantee this, as is the case in Kenya, is not provided for in this philosophy. If one were to assume this, one would come up with different strategies.

One could, for example, take the land of those who are too far behind with their payments under public administration until the debt is paid. But that would be the opposite of the desired privatization. One could subsidize water suppliers, on the basis that it is a paramount political goal to provide all people, including the destitute, with clean water and the possibility of a healthy, hygienic life, especially during a pandemic. But that would not be “sustainable”.

Instead, the authors consider – and check it out through their anti-social field experiment on defenceless poor people – the political costs of cutting off the water that has been made available to people in recent years. And the World Bank finds nothing wrong with publishing the paper with its cynical, market-radical policy recommendation in the middle of the Corona pandemic. It is a very special kind of person who rules the world of the poor.

Twitter discussion prompts a letter of justification

On August 8, in response to the strong criticism of their paper on Twitter, the authors posted an explanation on the Internet, in which they address ethical concerns regarding their experiment.

There they write that the defaulting customers are predominantly well-off landowners. They forget to mention, and to justify, that it is their poor tin hut tenants who are cut off from the water. How little co-author Paul Gertler is interested in this aspect, he made clear with a Twitter comment. “I was threatened with electricity disconnection many years ago and just paid my bill”, he tweeted on August 9. A person who cannot even imagine how it is to be poor, doing experimental research on the destitute. What could possibly go wrong?

The economists stress that a government was involved in the experiment and that it had previously asked the World Bank for help in improving payment morale. That may be so. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund always stress that everything they do is done at the request of the respective government. Often, however, this request is issued anything but voluntarily.

The authors also stress that they have diligently addressed possible negative effects of the water discontinuation, including on child health. There is a single paragraph in the paper on this subject in which it is briefly stated for a whole bouquet of possible effects, including child health, that no evidence has been found that they occur systematically.

Child health was measured by a single indicator, namely whether the oldest child in a family under five years of age suffered from diarrhea in the last two weeks. The authors apparently did not compare the incidence of diarrhea in the nearly one-third of families in the treated group who actually had their water turned off to those who continued to have water. Instead, all families in the group whose landlords were threatened with water discontinuation in principle were compared with the control group in which this was not the case.

The data of the third of the families in the treated group that was actually affected, was thus statistically diluted by the two-thirds in the same group who continued to have water, because their landlords paid up in time. Thus, it is not at all surprising that the negative effect on child health that was found was not statistically significant.

If it is already shocking that the pandemic is not mentioned in the working paper published in July 2020, it is even more difficult to comprehend how  the current letter of defence can do without the words Corona, Covid or pandemic; a real-life pandemic that makes special demands on hygiene that cannot be met without sufficient clean water. What the World Bank and the authors have jointly delivered here is simply beyond justification. (See also postscriptum at bottom.)

Experiments on the poor under criticism

Only recently, there has been a fierce controversy in the international economic community over a paper on another field experiment on very poor people that was accepted for publication in one of the five most prestigious journals, the Quarterly Journal of Economics published by Harvard. It describes how the authors teamed up with an evangelical mission foundation to test whether evangelical missionary work among mostly Catholic poor Filipinos improves their work morale. Because the (controversial) result was supposedly positive, missionary work was seriously declared a possible strategy for poverty reduction.

  1. August 13, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    I agree that this seems to be hugely unethical tactic. But as a resident of the first world I had some thoughts about it.

    As a landlord, I am not allowed to cut off the water, heat or power for tenants not paying their rent or in other ways violating the tenancy agreement because at one time that was a strategy used by landlords and was made illegal in my province.

    If I do not pay the municipality for my water, I would be cut off in my own home. The CEO of Nestle is alleged to have said that all water should be priced as a commodity for profit.

    When you think about this, we are looking at the extension of the enclosure movement. People with power and money were able to make and enforce laws against their peasants/tenants hunting and fishing in the forests near their villages giving rise to security forces to enforce the new laws.

    Market thinking and Social Darwinism rule. Survive or die. There is naturally a pushback in many forms which is why it is now illegal for me to cut off the power, heat or water for my tenants whom I can evict if I go through the proper channels and can afford to do so providing I have the grounds and proof to do so.

    This is also what so-called free trade agreements do, in other ways, by protecting corporate interests over the interests of communities and individuals. And if the national government has been captured by the elite and corporate interests, local governments are powerless to protect their citizens against corporate incursions.

    This also seems to be an extension of the Structural Adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.

  2. Edward Ross
    August 13, 2020 at 10:30 pm

    I write as a person who spent all of the seventies in a remote part of the sepik province from 1969 to 1981 as a volunteer. CLEAN uncontaminated WATER was a problem for example in bush areas many people relied on for springs for their water, but this was often contaminated by pigs and other animals with deadly consequences. The catholic mission put iorn roofs on some aid postsand provided tanks for water The problem was at that time the people did not understand the community responsibility to turn the tap of after taking water. The result was often in frustration the person seeking water and finding the tap had been left on and the tank was empty would cut a hole in the tank to ensure the person who had left the tank on would not get any more water. THE POINT HERE is that all people regardless of whether they are in the first or third world must learn to value and share their water. Therefore It seems obvious to me that governments and community leaders have a responsibility to see that all people have access to clean water for their daily needs.

    I certainly agree with antireifier that free trade and corporate interests should not be allowed to place profiteering, before providing an essential need to the people.As for the World bank and the IMF , they may have been created with good intentions. But is now painfully obvious that a they are now part of the the wealthy elite intent on feathering their nests through structural adjustment programs,Ted

  3. Ikonoclast
    August 14, 2020 at 2:19 am

    Surely the Lauderdale Paradox and artificial scarcity need a mention at this point. The idea of enclosure, mentioned above, is spot on. But why should I write a little essay on the topic when others have already done it and done it better than I could?


    To quote one key paragraph:

    “The common sense of mankind,” Lauderdale contended, “would revolt” at any proposal to augment private riches “by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man.” Nevertheless, he was aware that the bourgeois society in which he lived was already, in many ways, doing something of the very sort. He explained that, in particularly fertile periods, Dutch colonialists burned “spiceries” or paid natives to “collect the young blossoms or green leaves of the nutmeg trees” to kill them off; and that in plentiful years “the tobacco-planters in Virginia,” by legal enactment, burned “a certain proportion of tobacco” for every slave working their fields. Such practices were designed to increase scarcity, augmenting private riches (and the wealth of a few) by destroying what constituted public wealth — in this case, the produce of the earth. “So truly is this principle understood by those whose interest leads them to take advantage of it,” Lauderdale wrote, “that nothing but the impossibility of general combination protects the public wealth against the rapacity of private avarice.”

    Yes indeed! The common sense and common ethics of decent persons everywhere revolt at such inhuman avarice. Ultimately only revolt (revolution) will change these things via a general combination of the exploited classes and nations. Let us hope that it can be a peaceful and democratic revolution. If the rich elites make just and reasonable concessions it will be peaceful. If the rich elites instigate reactionary violence, there will be violence. I make a simple prediction. I do not advocate violence. I advocate just and reasonable changes. Even the word “concessions” is wrong. These are not concessions, these are just allocations of equal rights and access to the necessities of life and the amenities of civilized life.

    But if the elites obstinately persist then they need to understand that revolution is politics continued by other means. The ground-level bureaucrats, technocrats and “securitats” (security service personnel as in police and military “grunts”) who run and police our system don’t earn much more than the precariat these days. And they have many personal, familial and ethnic loyalty bonds to people in the precariat. The elites’ hold on the system may be a lot shakier than they think. Once the large middle (middle class) feel insecure they will polarise. While some insecure working class white chauvinists gravitate to the neo-fascists (Trump et al), a declining multi-cultural middle class, falling into precarity, is far less likely to go that way. A Green New Deal for them and their children, along with solidarity with ethnic relatives remaining in the “old country”, is far more likely to appear attractive.

  4. Rik Pinxten
    August 17, 2020 at 8:59 am

    I am in agreement with this analysis. Of course, developments over the past decades (systematically since neoliberalism) have crushed solidarity and insight. It may be relevant to consider non-economical or so-called “cultural” differences as well and organize alternative action by recognizing those as well. Now neoliberals use them to divide people. My view: discuss colonial attitudes, sense of life and such in depth, also in economic circles.

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    August 22, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    As usually understood, ethics is a branch of philosophy; it is ‘philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems, and moral judgements’ (Frankena 1973: 4). In this guise ethical concerns pursue the enlightenment goal of establishing a rational and hence universal morality, founded upon an agreed human nature. The problem, and one that has been exposed from within philosophy itself, is that no generally acceptable criteria for justice have yet been established. Instead of rationality we have philosophical traditions, each claiming precedence over others, but with little consensus about what the basis for moral judgements should be (MacIntyre 1988; Wilson 1997).

    In economics the dominant trend is likewise constructed around a universal model of human nature, which tends to unravel under scrutiny. By using an anthropological perspective on the ethical underpinning of that form of market activity which emerged in Western Europe some three hundred years ago, we can begin to see it as just one possible way economic life might be arranged and a certain distribution of goods, services, and other resources justified. In this way a universal and supposedly natural model of the economy is de-naturalized and becomes historical (Roseberry 1997: 252). But the Western idea of the market also has importance as a common point of departure for economists and other social scientists in their studies of specific economies, and moral precepts and ideas are often drawn in contrast to this economic model. It seems that even anthropologists, in the study of non-Western and non-capitalist societies, find it difficult to escape the use of economic definitions appropriate to capitalism. So, it goes without saying that most economists captured within the culture of capitalism will find it difficult to avoid applying capitalist definitions, problem perceptions, and solutions in all their work. Even so-called experimental studies of provisioning the poor.

    These are the issues we must address in dealing with the concerns raised by this work of the World Bank and its justifications. Anthropological work has grappled with morally inspired conceptions of the world or made critical commentary upon the problem of social provisioning, encompassing production, exchange, and consumption. Our first project is demonstrating that key conceptual categories in economics, such as the market, capitalism, gifts, commodities, and money, take form and only have meaning within identified cultural contexts. It also involves pointing out that such concepts can be quite damaging for human rights and moral and physical welfare by omitting these from study design, data gathering, research assessment, and study conclusions. But this project has its own dangers, however. Primarily, the project may lead to a position of extreme relativism, in which anything goes, all opinions and values have equal weight, and ethics comes to have no meaning. If a universal model of the economy and of ethics is untenable, then we need to turn to the role played by morality and notions of justice in social life. This requires us to recognize that ethical ideas involve dispute, politics, and power relations. In effect, prevailing ideas reflect the interests of the powerful, who use ethics to justify particular social and economic arrangements (Harvey 1993: 49–50). Consideration must therefore be given to the political possibilities that emerge in the practice of economics, which entails a critique of the model of the free market, and the social relations and economic conditions that emerge from it. In simple terms, economists must always look back at what they do and question it. How difficult to achieve is that objective do you think?

    An example is useful here, I believe. Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King writes today of Hubert Humphrey’s response to a question from the columnist in 1960 vs. Donald Trump’s response to a similar question today.

    “It was 1960 at Howard University, where I was a government major in my junior year. Sen. Hubert Humphrey was campaigning in the D.C. Democratic primary and had come to pitch his candidacy. But the big race of the year was the upcoming West Virginia primary in which Humphrey’s opponent, John F. Kennedy, was being attacked for his Catholic faith.

    When the floor was opened for questions, I asked Humphrey how he felt about the bigoted onslaught against JFK. Without missing a beat, Humphrey said that although he was seeking a victory in West Virginia, he didn’t want to win with anti-Catholic votes.

    I have told this story before. It’s worth repeating in light of President Trump’s response during a Wednesday news briefing to questions about far-right QAnon adherents — an online cabal of conspiracy theorists who believe Satan-worshipping pedophiles have infiltrated deeply into the government and, with the assistance of left-wing elitist Democrats and leftist media, are out to undermine Trump. The president was tossed a question similar to my query to Humphrey, but Trump’s answer was sickening.

    He started with the dodge that he didn’t know much about QAnon, except “they like me very much” — which is the standard by which Trump measures all of his relationships, both official and personal.

    “I heard,” Trump said, “that these are people who love our country.” A comment in keeping with his judgment that Charlottesville’s neo-Nazis and white supremacists were “very fine people.”

    Told by a reporter that QAnon believes Trump is waging war on pedophiles, cannibals and satanic worshippers, Trump asked: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?” Trump added: “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”

    This illustrates how ethical arrangements are created and ethical decisions made in the disputed social arrangements of everyday life.

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