The global crisis revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the wars in the climate crisis scenario has increased inequalities and reaffirmed the limits and failures of the current neoliberal model to respond to the crises and ensure a dignified life for all. Mobilisations are growing around the world to defend public services and stop their sale to the local and international private sectors. The International Conference "Our Future is Public" brought together in Santiago de Chile, in person and online, from 29 November to 2 December, a thousand associations and networks to develop strategies to strengthen public services, essential to face these crises and realise economic, social and cultural rights. The manifesto that emerged from the Conference, brought together all forces to engage in convergent mobilisations from the micro to the macro level to achieve its goals.
The historical background: The Amsterdam Conference, the attack on the PPP fiasco and the Global Manifesto
The first global conference "The Future is Public. Towards democratic ownership of public services", Amsterdam, December 2019, convened by social organisations and trade union networks from all continents, was almost prophetic in its timing. On the eve of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it denounced what would become obvious to all in a few months: the impossibility of the public sector, cutting back by budgetary reductions and privatisations disguised as public-private partnerships, to cope with the pandemic and related crises. The aim was to discuss strategies to put the 'public' back into public services.
Above all, it was necessary to dismantle the false truths of the fashionable Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that the private sector is more efficient and better placed to deliver public services. Is this true?
The report by Eurodad (the civil society network defending democratically controlled, fair and human rights-based financial and economic systems) and EPSU (the European Federation of Public Services Unions) identifies eight main reasons why PPPs are unquestionably bad: they do not bring in new money, on the contrary, they create hidden debt, private finance costs more than government borrowing, public authorities still bear the ultimate risk of project failure, PPPs do not guarantee better value for money, efficiency gains and design innovation can result in corner-cutting, PPPs do not guarantee projects being on time or budget, PPP deals are opaque and can contribute to corruption, PPPs distort public policy priorities and force publicly run services to cut costs.
So, what about the much-coveted and promoted public-private partnership? It has proven to be a fiasco. From this shared awareness comes a strong demand to coordinate mobilisations, underlined by the launch of the Global Civil Society Manifesto on Public Services in October 2021, signed by over 200 organisations, to reclaim and rebuild public services as the foundation of a fair and equitable economy that works for all.
The momentum is building and raising the bar: the international conference "Our Future is Public", Santiago de Chile from 29/11, 2/12/2022
Responding to the call of a broad network of social and trade union organisations, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), Public Services International (PSI), Transnational Institute, Tax Justice Network, International Alliance of Inhabitants (IAI), Action Aid and Oxfam, among other, more than 1,000 representatives of social movements and civil society organisations from all over the world, both face-to-face and online, took part in the "Our Future is Public" (OFIP) international conference held in Santiago, Chile, from November 29 to December 2, 2022.
Who are they? They are those who, in recent years, in different roles, have resisted policies based on the single-mindedness of neoliberalism, analysed the consequences of profit extraction on the living flesh of people and the planet, and mobilised against the theft of natural commons, such as water, and social commons, such as health and housing. They are the ones who have helped keep the alternative alive.
Santiago de Chile was chosen because the experience of the Chilean constitutional convention, watched with great attention and hope as a symbol of a new approach to the organisation of societies, made Chile an ideal setting for a global gathering of social movements, civil society actors and academic and political leaders to build and strengthen alliances, exchange ideas and develop strategies to recover public services and democratise the economy. The defeat of the new constitution in the referendum test last September is a cause for reflection, but not discouragement.
The conference was opened by Rosa Pavanelli, PSI general secretary, and Magdalena Sepúlveda, director of GI-ESCR. They stressed the importance of the centrality of public services in making human rights and democracy possible and the role of frontline workers.
The first two days were devoted to sectoral meetings on health, education, agriculture, economic justice and social protection, energy, food systems, housing rights, transport, waste and water; while the last two days were devoted to bringing together all the movements and organisations participating in the conference for a collective discussion on cross-cutting themes, including the climate crisis, gender equality, economic and fiscal justice, and democratic ownership.
Globalisation has given rise to extraordinarily powerful multinational corporations that have penetrated public services by commercialising them, including energy, water and sanitation, health and waste collection and treatment. This is the new form of colonialism.
The rules that govern a globalised world should be made democratically and in the interests of workers and people. Yet some of the most important rules governing globalisation are written in secret, and in the interests of the most powerful people in the world.
For these reasons, it is vital to protect whistleblowers who play a vital role in exposing corruption, and illegal activities such as tax evasion and illicit financial flows. Whistleblowing can save lives, protect the environment and help to stop illicit financial flows in the promotion of government and corporate accountability.
Ending corporate tax avoidance to fund public services
The debate on this issue, fuelled in particular by the Tax Justice Network, has emphasised that a fair tax system is the foundation of quality public services. Yet all over the world, corporations and the mega-rich are avoiding paying their fair share. They siphon off money for schools and hospitals and send it to offshore tax havens. There is more than enough wealth to provide quality public services for all; if corporations and the very rich pay their fair share, and if governments invest and spend wisely instead of privatising for the benefit of corporations and the rich. Without these resources, with an average of eight countries a year facing a debt crisis since 1970, sovereign debt problems are likely to affect most working people in the world at some point in their lives. When it does, it is used to deregulate, privatise, drive down wages and attack trade union rights, cut pensions and social protection, reduce public services and impose austerity.
An innovative articulation concerning other networks was introduced and highlighted by the International Alliance of Inhabitants, based on the finding that the slogan "all owners" has been used to attack the public housing service, favouring the parasitic extraction of real estate rent, the financialisation of the sector and the eviction crisis. Whereas the essence of housing is based on its use value, therefore on an inalienable right that is also protected by international human rights laws ratified by almost all countries. The claim becomes consequential: housing as a right can only exist if there is a public service, a concept highlighted at the International Workshop "Our Magna Cartas and the Right to Housing" Why do modern constitutions include the right to decent housing? and the 8th session of the World Assembly of Inhabitants. For the right to a decent habitat to exist "Our future is public and peace is essential". Strong reasons to build and strengthen alliances with other organised social sectors, notably Public Services International, Tax Justice Network, and for the right to energy, water and health.
Fighting for a better future: the movement against the commercialisation of care, for quality public healthcare for all
The activities organised by GI-ESCR denounced how commercialisation and financialisation are increasingly present in the healthcare sector for private benefit and profit. Civil society, trade unions and researchers are mobilising globally to reverse this trends in defence of the realisation of the right to health through strong public healthcare services. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Tlaleng Mofokeng, has indicated that she "plans to examine the role played by the privatisation of health care services; including public-private partnerships, aid money and philanthropy, in achieving universal health coverage" as strategic work priorities of her mandate.
The fight against the climate crisis is a fight for system change, starting with workers
The environmental crisis affects public services and their workers, who must be part of the solution and therefore benefit from fair and equitable transition programmes.
On the final day of the conference, David Boys, PSI deputy general secretary, said "We need to protect ourselves from climate change, and figure out as unions how to negotiate for ourselves in this context and invest in public services to be able to respond to climate crises." He moderated the panel on climate justice, with the participation of Ericka Ñanco, the first Mapuche national deputy from the Araucania region of Chile, who commented "The Mapuche are people of the land, and that is why we have always protected the land. Water is a universal human right. How is it possible that in Chile water is not a universal human right?"; Sebastian Berger, Executive Director of the Global Student Forum; Ndivile Mokoena, a climate and gender activist working with Gender CC Southern Africa in South Africa, emphasised that the climate crisis is leading to a serious food crisis in Africa; and Rodrigo Uprimny, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Law, Justice and Society.
Quality public services for all are the most important measure of development, and can only be achieved by increasing public investment, improving staffing levels and working conditions, and strengthening public participation in our systems. In particular, as women workers are the driving force behind our public services and the struggle for equality, their work must be recognised and valued equally, and discrimination, abuse and violence in the workplace must be stopped.
Did you say public services?
It is important to understand what public service is. In developed countries, it is or was defined as a mission of general interest carried out by a public body. With, if necessary, prerogatives of public power and subject to a legal regime adapted to the needs of this service, distinguished by:
- Continuity in space and time due to national unity.
- Equal access throughout the national territory to services guaranteed by the State.
- Constant adaptability to the needs of both the State and the citizens. Two other criteria, often neglected, were affirmed later in most countries.
- Secularity of the public service because the Republic guarantees freedom of conscience and equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their differences of opinion.
- Public ownership, or at least public control of the capital, is an essential condition for the respect of the general interest.
We conclude that the three main principles among those mentioned are equal access to public services, in particular, the principles of neutrality, secularism, prohibition of discrimination and the principle of continuity, which require that public services operate regularly and that they are accessible to people, i.e., that they can meet the imperative needs of people, not 'clients'. The principle of continuity will be applied according to the nature of the need. The idea is to rule out the "eclipsing state".
And it is essential not to confuse "public service" with "public sector". The term "public sector" refers to organisations, whereas "public service" is used more to define an activity (education, police, justice, etc.)
Does this mean that the public service serves the general interest? For Rousseau, in The Social Contract, public service is the set of duties that citizens owe to the community through their work and their devotion to the country, the reciprocal service of the members of the nation for the interest of all guaranteed by all, as opposed to particular interests. Thus, only the notion of public service overlaps with that of general interest. Everything depends on how this general interest is defined.
The Santiago Declaration, mobilising for a public future, is the only one that can sustain the “Buen Vivir”
The Santiago Conference went further. Indeed, the draft Santiago Declaration, written by many hands based on the hundreds of voices of different colours and shades heard, was an opportunity to update these concepts in light of the contributions of the participants from the global South. A public future means ensuring that everything essential for a dignified life is removed from private control and placed under decolonial forms of collective, transparent and democratic control. In some contexts, this means decisive local, regional and/or national interventions by the state. In other contexts, it means strengthening people's organisations, including trade unions, and expanding spaces of autonomy, the commons, and collective and community control over resources. Thus, public-public or public-community partnerships are valued, while at the same time there is strong resistance to public-private partnerships that only serve to extract resources from the public for private interests.
The meeting became an opportunity to see and listen to those who do not share the same realities and to find the similarities that allow us to walk together towards a public future. Together, against marginalisation and stigmatisation, standing up for everyone, including disabled workers, all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Certainly, there is still work to be done, what has been bound must not be let go and what has been brought forward cannot be taken back as the participants claimed, it is clear that "when we unite and fight together, we win".