Coronavirus Response and the Privatisation of Governance (i)

PSA21 Panel 1

Convener: Dr. Portia Roelofs, University of Oxford March 30, 2021, 3:30-5:00 pm

Through development policy, countries in the Global North have long used countries in the Global South as testing grounds for experiments in the privatisation of governance. New configurations of public and private in governance zig zag between donor countries and recipient countries, with policies initially implemented by Thatcher and Reagan being turbo-charged in the form of structural adjustment programmes and good governance reforms in the South, before boomeranging back to the West as post-crash austerity. Within the long arc of neo-liberal market reforms, the privatisation of governance has taken various forms from straight privatisation of public assets and services like water and education, to the introduction of private sector management techniques in the civil service, to the complex financial arrangements involved in public-private partnerships, to development projects promoting private sector participation and social business. In different ways, these have profound impacts on the practice of governance and our conceptions of normative ideas like corruption and the public interest.

This double panel draws on these debates about the shifting role of public and private in governance to explore public responses to the Coronavirus pandemic through this lens, and asks how “public” they really are. A framing paper will contextualise the discussion amidst “new frontiers of privatisation” whether the role of the Big Four management consultancies, new forms of marketisation, re-nationalisation etc. Four richly researched papers, split over two panels, will then examine the politics of the public-private divide with regards to state business-relations, development finance, elite philanthropy and how publicly owned enterprises navigate foreign markets.

Looking at cases in the global North and South, we will reflect on the Special Group’s title “Development Politics” : How is the idea of “development” used by different actors to justify Northern interventions? Does the coronavirus pandemic dissolve long-standing assumptions about “developed” and “developing” as meaningful categories?


Paper 1

New Frontiers of Privatisation

Portia Roelofs, University of Oxford

The coronavirus pandemic has reignited long-standing debates about the limits and possibilities of public versus private in governance. In Spain and Ireland, for example, private hospitals were brought at least temporarily under public control. By contrast, pre-existing British public health systems were bypassed by the Conservative government with major contracts for emergency telephone services, testing and tracing going to private firms.

Whilst the scale and recklessness of the British Government’s contracts with Serco and others have been the subject of parliamentary and popular outrage, the hit-and-run privatisation of governance during the pandemic was made possible as a result of longer-term trends which have shaped the evolution of governance in both developed and developing countries. This paper draws on secondary literature to give an overview of these new frontiers of privatisation and considers how our approach to studying privatisation must adapt to keep up:

The first trend is the complexity and opaqueness of new governance arrangements. As ‘privatisation’ has become unpopular with electorates, a new vocabulary of public-private partnerships, social business and private sector involvement has eased the entry of into governance of actors whose ambiguous position blurs the line between public and private interests: philanthro-capitalists, hedge-funds turned education providers etc (Bayliss & Waeyenberge 2018, Gabor 2020). How can we study these slippery new configurations?

Second is the shift from privatisation as the rolling back of the state to forms of privatisation that enlist the state to create and “de-risk” opportunities for market actors. How does this lead to new forms of state formation? What state-business relationships does it create?

The final trend is the embedding of private management consultants as state actors. What does the shift from the privatisation of services, to privatisation of the core decision-making, regulatory and planning functions of the state (Hibou 2005) mean for democracy? 


Paper 2

The World Bank Group, Covid-19 and the privatisation of public provision

Kate Bayliss, Ourania Dimakou, Maria Jose Romero and Elisa Van Waeyenberge

(All at SOAS University of London).

This paper reflects on the way that the Covid-19 pandemic has intersected with the World Bank Group’s agenda of mobilising private finance for development, including in public service provisioning. It builds on an initial mapping of the WBG’s response in the first four months of its Covid-19 response (Dimakou et al. 2020) which highlights how the pandemic seemed to provide an opportunity for the WBG to ramp up its commitment to private finance.

This paper takes this analysis further as it extends the timeframe and scrutinises the way in which the WBG is projecting its longer term response to both the pandemic and the restrained fiscal space  that developing countries will face in a post-Covid19 world, including with IMF-led austerity measures. We will explore the implications for public service provisioning in the Global South. The paper will draw on the WBG’s publicly available programme documentation and select case study countries across continents to tease out lessons regarding WBG influence on public sector governance in the Global South. This will move the analysis forward regarding how the pandemic has affected, perhaps differentially, the trajectory of neoliberalism and financialisation in specific settings and with important implications for practices and norms of public service provisioning.

Reference: Dimakou, O. et al. (2020) Never let a pandemic go to waste. Turbocharging the private sector for development at the World Bank. Canadian Journal of Development Studies.



Paper 3

Philanthropy and private initiatives against COVID 19 in Nigeria

Corentin Cohen, CNRS / OxPo Sciences Po, University of Oxford

This paper will look at the philanthropic actions undertaken by companies and by individual businessmen in the fight against COVID 19 in Nigeria. Its aim is to identify and map the initiatives taken to react to this major public health issue but also to reflect on how they contribute to the transformations of governance. Amongst these initiatives the “Private Sector Coalition Against COVID 19” is a financial task force which gathered different foundations such as Aliko Dangote’s or Tony Elumelu’s (two of Nigeria’s richest men) and channelled money through the Central Bank of Nigeria. But smaller companies, businessmen and religious institutions also organized lower scale responses as they partnered with public institutions and developed initiatives which could pave way to long term partnerships with states. This was the case as some of these philanthropists initially framed the pandemic as a divine punishment. We lack visibility on how these different initiatives connect. Research is also needed to understand the kind of policies produced. The paper will look at the conception of governance and statehood that these actors embody. It will also examine the discourses, narratives and reforms these actors supported. How do they position themselves as regard to international organisations such as the WHO or to international donors ? Do they act as brokers to import health policies or do they shape international agenda and practices ?