Monday, March 23, 2015

The politics of overcoming the infrastructure gap

I spent the last days of last week attending a great conference and meeting in Philadelphia on "Overcoming the infrastructure gap," organized by Vit Henisz from the Wharton School of Business at Penn University. I chaired a session on the "National political challenges" of the issue, with the participation of practitioners with experience and interest in finding formal and informal institutional solutions to the political challenges of public private partnerships (PPPs) in infrastructure.  Most of what I heard from these practitioners and the people who spoke from the audience (most of them American) is very different from the conventional recipes of "strong institutions and depoliticization." In particular, it was said that depoliticization is impossible in democracies (for good reasons), and that what must be done is to engage with stakeholders, anticipate problems and make sure that communities "own" large infrastructure projects from the beginning. I tried to drive the speakers also towards talking about the perception of corruption and towards the need to reform privately owned corporations and not only public bodies, but I found that difficult given the diplomacy of these events. But I believe (before and after this great event that I attended) that many of the doubts that public opinion has with PPPs have to do with the perception of the public that at least in some important cases these projects are associated to the practice of some private operators of at least lobbying governments to achieve private gains that are costly for the public. Efficiencies that can be contributed by private operators are necessary, but public projects in democracies should be "owned" in a general sense by society at large.

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