- Human Rights or Global Capitalism: The Limits of Privatization by Manfred Nowak
Shortly before I read Manfred Nowak’s important new book on privatization, I came across an article in the business section of Toronto’s Globe and Mail discussing a promising new investment opportunity. The author alerted his readers about the anticipated increase in the number of for-profit prisons in the US as a result of President Trump’s announced policies to get tough on crime and immigration, and he noted that readers could invest in the companies running those prisons. Nowak has collected much evidence that privatization of essential social services undermines all human rights: civil and political as well as economic and social.
Nowak’s principal argument is that international human rights law cannot be neutral regarding whether services essential to the fulfillment of human rights may be privatized. Such a position, he argues, abnegates responsibility to assess the actual consequences of privatization. International law requires progressive implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights to the maximum of a country’s available resources.1 Thus, Nowak argues, it also prohibits the introduction of “deliberate retrogressive measures.”2 He also argues that the requirement of progressive implementation applies to civil and political rights as well as to economic, social, and cultural, although it is unclear if this is the consensus among international human rights lawyers. Thus, Nowak argues, a thorough human rights impact assessment is required before any privatization program is undertaken, and private providers must be held accountable to the same high human rights standards as states.
In assessing the consequences of privatization, Nowak suggests as a baseline measure the status quo at the time each state ratified the various relevant legal instruments, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This appears to be a good principle, but it does assume that what states reported to be the provision of services and protection of human rights at the time of ratification actually was the case.
In Chapters 3–6, Nowak provides much evidence that privatization of education, health, social services, and water has resulted in poorer services overall. But he does not compare the results of these policies with the reality on the ground before they were implemented. He assumes that all privatization—specially that connected with the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) instituted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—leaves people worse off. This is not necessarily the case. It may appear, for example, that resorting to private schools in sub-Saharan Africa is a regressive measure compared to earlier guarantees of free government-provided primary schooling. But the reality in many government-supported public schools, both before and after SAPs, was that classrooms were overcrowded, supplies nonexistent, and many teachers unqualified [End Page 1002] or underpaid, if indeed not paid at all. In one study of public schools in seven African countries, children received less than two and a half hours of teaching per day, although there was no evidence that private schools were any better.3
Like the educational systems, government-provided health services may have been more fictitious than real. Hospitals were often undersupplied; patients and their families had to buy their own bandages, drugs, and food; and they routinely had to bribe doctors in order to obtain treatment. It is, indeed, appalling that SAPs required governments to reduce spending on already inadequate health and education services, but we should not be misled into assuming that these services were either universally available or accessible to all on an equal basis. Nor were they ever free; they were supposed to be tax-supported, but countries with very low tax bases due to administrative inefficiencies, taxpayer resistance, corruption, or a combination of all three, routinely do not provide these services.
On the other hand, statistical data suggesting improvements in economic performance in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 1990s after SAPs were introduced may also be an artifact of...