Aid, Trade, and Investment: Explaining the Participation of Dutch Water Companies in Water Operator Partnerships

Authors: Andrea Beck*, MIT
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Development, Qualitative Research
Keywords: water services, utility reform, capacity building, aid and trade, Netherlands
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Plaza Court 6, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper examines water operator partnerships (WOPs) as an alternative approach for reforming public water utilities in the global South. In contrast to public-private partnerships, WOPs are aimed at peer-to-peer capacity building on a not-for-profit basis. According to official UN discourse, mentor operators share their expertise out of solidarity and a commitment to enhancing the performance of their peers. However, in light of the controversial history of privatization in the water sector, critics have raised doubts about the role of solidarity as a mentor motivation. Why do water operators participate in WOPs and assist other providers free-of-charge? Is solidarity indeed the main motivation behind knowledge transfer and capacity building in WOPs, or are more self-interested, profit-oriented incentives driving these activities? Informed by larger literatures about the motivations behind development assistance, this paper addresses these questions by analyzing the case of the Dutch public company Vitens Evides International (VEI). VEI has served as a mentor in numerous WOPs in the South, particularly in Eastern and Southern Africa. Drawing on interviews with VEI’s management team and representatives of affiliated water companies, the paper argues that VEI's mentoring activities are driven by the following considerations: staff development and recruitment; customer relations and corporate social responsibility; sustainable development; and aid, trade, and investment. The analysis of VEI helps move beyond a narrow focus on the private sector in WOP debates and exposes two additional trends (related to trade and investment) that could further dilute the WOP approach and its progressive potential.

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