Public not private – the key to ending global poverty

“Building up public services in poor countries is key to making poverty history”
Bernice Romero
Published: 29 August 2006

Classrooms with teachers, clinics with nurses, running taps and working toilets: these basic public services are key to ending global poverty, according to a new report from Oxfam and WaterAid. And, the agencies say, only governments are in a position to deliver them on the scale needed to transform the lives of millions living in poverty.

The report, "In the Public Interest," calls on developing country governments to devote a greater proportion of their budgets to building these vital services for their citizens – and for rich countries to support their plans with increased, long-term aid commitment.

“Building up public services in poor countries is key to making poverty history,” said Oxfam’s Bernice Romero, Advocacy and Campaigns Director. “What greater investment could there be than paying for the training and salaries of teachers and health workers, or developing national water and sanitation systems?”

Rich countries and the World Bank come under fire for undermining governments’ ability to deliver public services by pushing inappropriate private sector projects in water provision and health. The report acknowledges that the private sector has a role to play, along with charities and faith groups, but argues they cannot provide services on the necessary scale, geared to the needs of all citizens, including women and girls, minorities and the very poorest.

The report argues that universal public services were the basis for today’s prosperity in rich countries.

“A hundred years ago, life expectancies in Europe weren’t so very different from modern-day Africa,” said Bernice Romero. “It was only through strong government-led programs that we tackled disease and created an educated workforce, laying the foundations for the level of wealth we enjoy today.”

While acknowledging the challenges of weak government systems in many countries, the agencies highlight recent successes. Sri Lanka, Botswana, Malaysia and Kerala state in India have, within a generation, made health and education advances that took industrialized countries more than a century to achieve.

In spite of being a poor country with a third of people living on less than two dollars a day, Sri Lanka provides free health care and education to its citizens. It has one of the world’s lowest rates of women dying in childbirth.

“There are over a billion people living without access to clean, safe water and 2.6 billion people have nowhere to go to the toilet,” said Belinda Calaguas, WaterAid’s Head of Policy. “This leads to the inevitable spread of water-related diseases which claim the lives of 6,000 children every day. This is a growing crisis for some of the poorest countries in the world and the answer lies in massive public sector reform supported by rich country governments.”

Every day around the world 4,000 children are killed by diarrhea, 1,400 women die needlessly in pregnancy or childbirth and 100 million school-age children, most of them girls, will not go to school. Yet rich countries still spend almost as much on pet food ($40billion) as the $47 billion a year it would cost to meet the Millennium Development Goals on health, education, water and sanitation.

“Within a generation, for the first time in history, every child in the world could be in school, every woman could give birth with proper health care, everyone could drink clean, safe water, and millions of new health workers and teachers could be saving lives and shaping minds. We should accept nothing less,” said Oxfam’s Bernice Romero.

Contact Information

For further information, please contact:
Taylor Thompson, Media Officer, Oxfam International,,
+1 202 321 2967