Can public-private partnerships deliver gender equality?
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are being actively promoted by donor governments and international financial institutions to finance social services and infrastructure projects around the world. They feature prominently as a financing mechanism for delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, support for PPPs runs counter to governments’ commitments to promote gender equality and the fulfilment of women’s rights under Agenda 2030 and elsewhere.
PPPs are agreements that see private sector companies essentially replacing the state as providers of traditional public services and infrastructure, such as health and education, transport, energy, and water and sanitation. Proponents point to their value in raising resources and introducing efficiency, which in turn will lead to the achievement of social goals like gender equality. But their evidence is weak. In fact, the available research suggests that PPPs may actually exacerbate gender inequality in three ways:
- All too often PPPs are more expensive and carry more risk than public provision, thus failing to increase the resources available to governments. Instead they risk creating additional fiscal constraints that undermine the state’s capacity to deliver gender-transformative public services and infrastructure, or to promote decent work for women.
- Private providers are ultimately accountable to shareholders, not citizens. The pursuit of profit restricts access to services for the most marginalised, thus undermining the ability of PPP projects to contribute to social goals such as gender equality. Their lack of transparency further compounds the problem.
- This pursuit of profit then also limits the provision of ‘decent work’ for women within PPP-operated projects. because of gender-based discrimination women – particularly those women facing intersecting discriminations on the basis of race, for example – have less income and fewer assets and therefore do more unpaid care work. As a result, they are both more in need of social services and infrastructure, and less able to access it. In addition to increasing the quantity of provision, the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights requires gender-transformative social services and infrastructure that meet women’s practical needs and strategic priorities.
If donors and governments are to meet their obligations on gender equality and women’s rights, what is needed is a much more evidence-based approach to the way in which infrastructure and social services are financed. International financial institutions and their member governments should stop the ideologically driven promotion of PPPs and instead ensure that the financing mechanisms chosen contribute to, rather than undermine, gender equality and other social goals within Agenda 2030. This briefing aims to contribute to the growing civil society debate about PPPs.
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