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Accepted paper:

Knowledge transfer, power hierarchies, and neoliberal policy transmission in Africa's water sector


Andrea Beck (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Paper short abstract:

Paper long abstract:

Water operator partnerships (WOPs) have emerged as an important mechanism to transfer knowledge and improve the delivery of water services in the global South. While water operators from Europe still play an important role as "mentors" in WOPs, operators from Africa are increasingly forming their own partnerships to tackle challenges in service provision. This paper examines one such partnership in-depth: a WOP between the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) of Uganda and the Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) of Malawi. The partnership took place in 2017/18 and was focused on reducing non-revenue water in Lilongwe. Drawing on interviews and fieldwork in Malawi, the case study underscores the benefits of South-South WOPs in Africa, including greater operator compatibility and ease of knowledge transfer due to shared backgrounds and experiences. Yet evidence from Malawi also indicates that some elements of hierarchy and regional rivalry play out in WOPs between African water operators, which can inhibit the formation of partnerships and the exchange of knowledge. NWSC, for instance, insists on being the "mentor" in WOPs with other utilities in Africa, even in cases where its performance would justify a more equal (peer-to-peer) footing. Moreover, the knowledge transmitted through the NWSC-LWB partnership seems to be working to the disadvantage of Lilongwe's low-income areas, which have become the site of police raids against "illegal" connections. Taken together, this paper argues that South-South WOPs in Africa have a number of important advantages. At the same time, the paper warns against uncritically promoting intra-African partnerships due to the power hierarchies present on the continent and the possibility for WOPs to serve as "conduits" or "transmitting devices" for neoliberal policies. Such policies are normally associated with Northern water companies and donor agencies, but the NWSC-LWB case suggests that they have become equally entrenched within the water sector in Africa, with African operators acting as the agents of transmission.

panel D18
Disciplinary trends in Africa: water science and technology