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Privatization of public utilities to lift efficiency Accountability to improve services

In this week’s online poll, the Arab Times put the subject of privatization of public utilities to the vote. The reactions were mixed, although skepticism dominated.

About 29% percent of the voters said that the services would become more efficient. Speaking to respondents, the Arab Times learned that people largely equate courteous behavior to efficiency. A majority of them supported it because they thought that they would be treated well like how a customer would be treated in a shop. For some, the idea of efficiency included prompt response to complaints, uninterrupted services, and bilingual frontoffice staff to attend to the needs of all.

Many respondents complained that when their telephone lines had problems the authorities took several weeks and in some cases even months to fix it. “This shows the level of incompetence of public services.” When asked what they felt were the reasons for incompetence, respondents said the lack of accountability. “When you are working in a government office, there’s really no accountability. The organization does not belong to anyone. It belongs to the “people,” which is an abstract concept.” If public utilities are privatized the first major difference is that you will have a clearly defined hierarchy of accountability. “When something goes wrong, someone will have to bear the responsibility for it. And private businesses will not show the magnanimity to forgive mistakes and bear the loss, resulting in action that will instill a sense of fear in the employees.”

An almost equal percentage, 27%, of the voters had a negative take on the subject. They felt that when public utilities are privatized, there’s a marked increase in costs. “This has been the lesson that many countries in the world learnt from their privatization experiments.” When the motive is profit, price rise is the natural consequence.

May be it’s an immediate effect, but it will occur gradually over a period of time in a manner that it is almost imperceptible. Some respondents even said that it would work to the grave disadvantage of expatriates. Their logic was that as increased cost of public utilities would create a stir in the parliament, the private companies might be wary of slapping extra charges on citizens. They would then turn to the expatriates to attain their high profit targets. “Yes, this might sound a little too farfetched, but corporate lobbies in other countries have been very successful in manipulating the laws of the land for their benefit. So, anything is possible.”

About 23% of the voters favored the move, “as it would give us better services.” When there’s privatization, there’s competition, which leads to better quality for lesser price, respondents argued. A counter argument for this assumption was that there would be no competition, but private monopoly. “Each utility would be awarded to a particular company.

Competition would be there only in the tendering stages, which has a strong chance being corrupt.” Other concerns against privatization included control of natural resources by corporate entities, and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. A few voters supported privatization as it would ensure salaries and promotions commensurate to performance. “This will bring us better quality.”

By: Valiya S. Sajjad Arab Times Staff

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