Uncovering JAPA

Prioritizing the Public in Public Utilities

Without understanding the spatial differentiation in access and quality, public utilities will never truly serve the public.

Evaluating Equity in Water Services Performance Metrics

In "Why Detailing Spatial Equity Matters in Water and Sanitation Evaluations," a Viewpoint in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 1), authors Gabriella Y. Carolini and Prassanna Raman assert that performance benchmarking in public water and sanitation services may only feign efficiency and efficacy in many low- and middle-income countries. With limited financial resources, many public utilities seek out private capital to fund infrastructure projects. The resulting service delivery system excludes the poorest communities and forgoes justice for a commitment to financial return.

To evaluate these systems, local authorities adopted standards reflecting the priorities of those they believe to be their greatest potential stakeholders — private investors. This approach is not novel, but indicative of norms created by the neoliberalizing Global North and subsequently adopted by the Global South. Therefore while systems overall suggest high performance, Carolini and Raman argue they hide disparate access to and quality of water and sanitation services.

The last two decades have sought to address these disparities. International and local investors have begun to incorporate equity in evaluating utility performance. However, the authors suggest in practice the inclusion of equity has yielded little change. Under pressure to guarantee access to water for all, public water fountains have replaced expanded water and sanitation infrastructure. Local authorities instead use private investment to improve service in areas that require low capital costs to maintain operations. And with large portions of the population living in these areas designated as uneconomical for expansion, true equity cannot be achieved.

Disaggregate Metrics, Engage Communities, Redefine Goals

For Carolini and Raman, the answer is to disaggregate benchmarking. With a smaller unit of analysis, local authorities perhaps will have less ability to hide service problems in low-income communities. They also suggest that this might be complemented with resident engagement opportunities to ensure communities themselves can evaluate their service. Yet, I question if local authorities instead will in turn disassociate themselves from these areas, unwilling to address inequity.

Public utilities can only truly be public when the lowest-income communities have access to quality services. However, to accomplish this, local authorities and their funders must redefine what access and quality mean for all residents. And even if they do not have the finances to actualize them, they must establish a plan through which these goals might be achieved soon.

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About the author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

May 13, 2021

By Kyle Miller