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Anti-poverty groups question private finance for development

by Stella Dawson | https://twitter.com/stelladawson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 July 2015 05:17 GMT

In a 2013 file photo, people travel along a street in Hanoi. For a firm short on capital with a background in textiles, property and bottling water, Bitexco wasn't the obvious choice to build a $757 million highway backed by the World Bank in Vietnam's first-ever public-private partnership. REUTERS/Kham

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Public-private partnerships are expensive, foist risk upon the public sector, and are shrouded in secrecy, say European NGOs

By Stella Dawson

WASHINGTON, July 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments increasingly are turning to private investors to build infrastructure and deliver public services, but European anti-poverty groups question the benefits of relying on this financing tool to achieve development goals.

These projects, known as public-private partnerships (PPPs), are often very costly, the public sector takes on most of the risk, and secrecy often shrouds how PPPs are negotiated and managed, the Eurodad coalition of European non-governmental organisations said in a report released on Thursday.

Its findings come as the United Nations is proposing that PPPs play a key role in development finance at a conference in Addis Ababa next week.

PPPs figure prominently in the U.N.'s draft proposal for that meeting, and are favoured by the World Bank and G7 countries.

But Maria Jose Romero, author of the report "What Lies Beneath?", said that Eurodad's review of academic literature and World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports reveal that PPPs have a mixed track record, raising serious questions about their value.

"Our governments must take a step back during the Addis Ababa Summit and put development needs, and not the needs of private investors, first," Romero said.

"This report shows that promoting PPPs in a non-critical way is a mistake. Governments and financial institutions should focus on developing the right tools at country level to identify whether - and under what circumstances - it is desirable to use PPPs."

The amount of money invested in PPPs grew sixfold between 2004 and 2012 to $134.2 billion, with energy and transportation projects attracting the highest levels of investments.

Reliance on PPPs is expected to continue growing.

The World Bank estimates that $1 trillion more is needed each year to keep up with growing demand for highways, ports and airports.

In addition, the new U.N. development goals designed to end extreme poverty and promote prosperity by 2030 will cost an estimated $2 trillion to $3 trillion to implement.

The report said the PPPs in most cases are more expensive than public projects because private investors must borrow money at commercial rates rather than sovereign borrowing rates.

They are complex to negotiate and implement, with 55 percent requiring renegotiation within two years of which 62 percent resulted in increased tariffs, according to an IMF report.

Contracts also frequently place a large share of risk on the public sector, while the private sector reaps most of the profits, Romero said.

While there is some evidence that private sector involvement can bring market efficiencies and improvements in service, the evidence is very limited and weak, she said.

Eurodad called on governments to take a hard look at the true costs of PPPs and disclose documents to increase their public accountability.

(Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Alisa Tang; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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