Water, Activism, and the World Bank: The Debate Over Private Sector Participation, 1990-2010

Thumbnail Image
Publication or External Link
Travis, Karen Faye
Conca, Ken
This dissertation examines the transformation of the World Bank's agenda for private sector participation in urban water and sanitation utilities in developing countries between 1990-2010. I analyze agenda change at the Bank at the level of international policy and through a case study of Uruguay. The case study of Uruguay examines a successful domestic and transnational activist campaign to reform that country's constitution to prohibit private sector involvement in the provision of water and sanitation services. I find that a pro-privatization agenda institutionalized in the Bank during the 1990s as a result of convergent interests between donor states, the Bank, and transnational corporations was destabilized by a dynamic interplay of external and internal forces in the 2000s. Transnational activist networks, client states, and transnational corporations in retreat comprised the new configuration of external actors constraining the Bank in the 2000s. Tensions internal to the Bank, between its roles as a financial institution and a knowledge producer, and in relation to its neoliberal ideological orientation, have militated against sustained learning as the Bank has confronted the failure of its agenda. I show the Bank to be only a partial learner, unable to resolve contradictions between its espoused development goals, profit-making imperative, and ideology. Transnational activists' impact on the Bank occurred primarily through country-level campaigns, not through direct engagement or donor pressure, the main routes through which civil society activists have engaged with the Bank in the past. The case study of Uruguay illustrates the contradiction between ideology and "bottom line" pragmatism within the Bank, as well as the challenges facing activists seeking to construct and implement participatory and equitable models of water service delivery.