Disordering Capital: The Politics of Business in the Business of Water Provision
Author(s)Cruxên, Isadora Araujo
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This dissertation consists of three articles that together seek to deconstruct, or disorder, monolithic treatments of “private sector” participation in the delivery of urban water and sanitation services. The studies interrogate how variation in forms of business ownership and politics not only shape public-private collaboration for service delivery over time but also contribute to re-configuring the institutions that govern service provision markets in global South contexts. Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on the development of private participation in water and sanitation provision in Brazil, my work yields three central insights. First, it illuminates how shifts in business ownership away from family-owned construction business groups towards ownership by financial investors produced a “centralizing” organizational and institutional pull in the governance of private urban water and sanitation services. Once heavily embedded in local politics, private holdings reduced subsidiary autonomy, eschewed close relations with local politicians, and mobilized for regulatory centralization. This finding problematizes the tendency within scholarship on the financialization of urban development to position financial investors as capitalizing on local forms of entrepreneurial politics, suggesting the need to consider how different investors fluidly engage with shifting market contexts. I argue that financial investors perceived centralization as an effective strategy for ensuring stable returns across consolidated operations within otherwise unstable and fragmented local political environments. Second, my work challenges the tendency to portray infrastructure investors as passive onlookers searching for institutionally-stable investment geographies. I show that private investors in Brazil’s water and sanitation sector were able to counter strong opposition and successfully lobby for a centralizing regulatory reform by constructing business power over time. This entailed learning from mistakes and adjusting mobilization strategies, revealing that infrastructure investors do not have fixed preferences, may learn and adapt, and can be key agents of institutional change. Finally, my research unsettles the assumption that profit maximization will override other service objectives. My comparative analysis of the long-term outcomes of different models of public-private collaboration shows that states can still shape service delivery priorities through the work of politically-appointed managers and state allies, what I call “political modulation.” This finding not only problematizes policy advice that prescribes political insulation as a strategy for improving service delivery, it also suggests politics can play a positive role in promoting more equitable service outcomes.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology