Rebalancing privatization: Keeping public services public
by Rene Ofreneo
The approval by the House of Representatives of House Bill 7437 prohibiting the privatization of government hospitals is a welcome development. As explained by the bill’s principal author, Angelina Tan, public health institutions “should remain public and should continue to serve the poor.” There are more than enough private hospitals to cater to the needs of the rich.
If government hospitals are privatized, the poor’s access to health service shall be subject to the profit requirements of the big private hospital operators. Such a development shall also erode the capacity of the national government to implement the Universal Health Care program, whose success depends on the existence nationwide of health facilities providing accessible and affordable health service to the poor.
Lito Atienza, one of the bill’s sponsors, also warned that, unchecked, private interests buying government hospitals are likely to transform the lands where these government hospitals stand into commercial and real-estate projects. As it is, most of the idle prime land in the urban areas have already been acquired by the country’s big land developers, usually for “land banking” purposes.
In the opening of classes this June, it was revealed that a major headache of the Department of Education and the local government units is where to build the new school buildings because there are no available lands in the city and town centers. In fact, cities and urban areas are growing without any spaces not only for schools and hospitals but also for trees and parks.
But what is the point of this article?
The policy proposal to stop the privatization of government hospitals should be widened into a critical assessment of privatization as a general policy tool in the development of various infrastructure projects and in the delivery of government services, especially basic public services.
Such an inquiry should be informed by the rethinking on privatization sweeping Europe and North America. This rethinking is reflected in the “re-municipalization” and “renationalization” of privatized energy, electricity, water, transport, housing, telecommunications, waste treatment, health, education and other basic services that have taken place in the United Kingdom, hailed as the birthplace of privatization (courtesy of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s), Germany, France and other European countries. Per a recent study by the Netherlands-based TNI, there are at least 835 remunicipalization and 49 renationalization cases.
Most of these re-municipalization and renationalization programs happened due to the combined or united efforts of civil society organizations (of various political persuasions, from left to right) and local government authorities, who are exasperated over the rising cost of services under the profit framework of the private companies and the failure of these companies to meet other expected public gains from privatization, such as improved productivity, environmental care, reduced public debt, efficient service and community wellness. Goods that were once considered public goods, such as education and water, have been commodified and commercialized. As the TNI reported, the first and foremost objective of any investors taking over control of public services is to make a profit for their shareholders.
One outcome from the wave of re-municipalization and renationalization hitting Europe and even North America is the decline of public-private partnerships as a government instrument in generating new investments and in the delivery of basic public services. Ironically, this is not the case in the Philippines, where PPP is hailed as the chief mechanism in making the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Duterte Administration work.
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