Webinar on Privatization & Public-Private Partnerships

Publish Date: 
Friday, September 23, 2016

On Wednesday, September 28, ESCR-Net's Working Group on Economic Policy and Human Rights held a Webinar on Privatization & Public-Private Partnerships, with opening presentations by Tessa Khan (Climate Litigation Network), Salima Namusobya (Initiative for Social and Economic Rights) and Sylvain Aubry (Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

Webinar on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships - ESCR-Net's Economic Policy and Human Rights Working Group



The theme for this webinar discussion emerged from an analysis report built on interviews with diverse members across every region. A related briefing note and resources are available below, following a brief summary of the webinar.

Summary of the webinar

The webinar on privatization and public-private partnerships (PPPs) involved discussion among ESCR-Net members regarding the challenges that privatization policies and PPPs pose to the realization of human rights, as well as strategies for resisting the imposition of harmful privatization policies and PPP agreements. The discussion started with an overview of the evolution of privatization and PPPs since the 1980s, including the role of structural adjustment programmes imposed on developing countries; the recent enthusiastic engagement by governments with the private sector for funding and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals; and the adoption of privatization policies as part of ‘austerity’ programmes developed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

It was noted that private actors that benefit from such policies tend not to be small and medium-sized enterprises, but transnational companies that have the money and sophistication to engage with governments. A number of human rights impacts of PPPs and privatization policies were highlighted, including the erosion of economic and social rights as a result of privatization of social services, particularly for women; and the focus of the private sector on goods and services that are profitable rather than important for poverty reduction or the realization of human rights. The damaging impacts of privatization of water services was raised a number of times, evidenced by the trend towards remunicipalisation of previously privatized services in dozens of countries.

Accountability was also raised as a major challenge, given the lack of clear human rights-based regulatory framework for private sector actors and the privileging of investor rights via mechanisms such as investor-state dispute settlement. The development of a treaty in the UN Human Rights Council that would bind private actors was raised as an important step in this context. On the other hand, discussants made the point that regulation of the private sector may risk legitimizing its involvement in the provision of essential services.

Discussants also emphasized the importance of nuance in the discussion around privatization, particularly drawing a distinction between ‘privatisation’ and ‘commercialisation’, with the latter denoting a more harmful profit orientation. This is especially important given the reality that in some contexts, e.g. fragile or conflict-affected States, the State may lack the capacity to deliver essential services. It was also stressed that it is important to ground critiques of privatization in a human rights framework, rather than an ideological one. In the context of the right to education, advocates have been working collectively and using human rights tools such as parallel reporting in international bodies to develop clarity around the obligations of States and the private sector in relation to service delivery. 

Briefing Note on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships

This briefing note outlines the human rights implications of privatisation policies, with a focus on their impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. It highlights public-private partnerships as a key instrument being promoted by international financial and political institutions, as part of a broader trend towards increased privatization of public assets and services. It focuses on the privatization of public services and natural or common resources, including land, and considers accountability gaps associated with such practices.  


Below is an initial list of resources on a range of privatization, public-private partnerships and human rights issues that can also be found with descriptions in the above briefing note. We welcome members and partners to suggest other relevant resources to highlight.

Selected Resources from ESCR-Net Members

Other Resources