CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1On 3 January 2007, following substantial social mobilisation and long months of negotiations, the Suez-Lyonnaise water consortium withdrew from the La Paz-El Alto area in Bolivia. Yet the company had considered this Bolivian concession an important aspect of its international communication strategy, a vital step in the conquest of new markets. In 2005 a public relations officer with the company had explained that the concession was “not heavily significant in the financial performance of the group. The profits made […] have up until now been entirely reinvested in the site. This contract is important for us in terms of image: we want to show that it is possible to work in a country like Bolivia.” [1]

2In the same year, the Spanish group Aguas de Barcelona (Agbar) was looking to free itself from debt on a global level. It wanted to sell its stake in the Aguas de Cartagena S.A (ACUACAR) consortium, the company that provided drinking water and sanitation to the town of Cartagena in Columbia. To its great surprise, the company was confronted with social mobilisation by local groups who refused its withdrawal out of fear that the intended replacement would not be able to provide the same efficiency in managing the service. Aguas de Barcelona ultimately remained in the area.

3Such contrasts, which are emblematic of more general divergences in the region, [2] encourage us to study both the mechanisms that produce the social acceptance of privatisation and the mechanisms that produce refusal. Why do policies of resorting to the private sector, which seem thoroughly standardised and which occur in the same pro-neoliberal international context (the famous Washington consensus), provoke widespread social protest in certain cases and not in others? Unfortunately the social sciences tend to study the processes institutionalising new public policies and collective protest separately; a traditional separation that is embodied by the division of academic work between public policy and the sociology of social movements. [3] There is certainly now a promising field of research that is attempting to analyse the progressive reciprocal structuration of public policy and of protest against its effects. [4] But these studies have so far essentially been focused on comparing different dynamics of protest actions, without looking to systematically explain the differences in intensity between these mobilisations.

4The comparison between the cases of Cartagena and La Paz-El Alto enables two arguments to be developed. First, it will become clear that variations in the material impact of privatisation on users – the approach generally adopted by economists employed by finance and development institutions – is not enough to explain the difference in mobilisation. Nor can it be explained by the unequal propensity towards protest of the different populations in question (a reading often implied by currents in sociology that are the most critical of development practices). This differential is instead the product of various adjustments between systems of norms and expectations that prevailed in the management of water networks before privatisation (systems that could be qualified as socio-clientelistic) and the new neoliberal systems of norms promoted by the private providers and defenders of reform. In Cartagena the second system has slowly replaced the former, allowing for a “normative accommodation”. In El Alto the older normative system was brutally challenged, which provoked a “normative shock” for users which ultimately led to vigorous protests.

5The second argument is that the “success” or “failure” of these normative adjustments was not determined by the quality of the political work of legitimation, aiming to convince populations and convert them to neoliberal norms. On the contrary, what is remarkable is the lack of real justifying discourses put forward by political leaders. The normative accommodation observed in Cartagena and for the early years of activity in La Paz-El Alto, stems more from a cohabitation between systems of norms which continue to be foreign to one another, rather than a progressive hybridisation of these norms which would suggest a gradual conversion of the populations. The notion of legitimacy in privatisation, which implies a minimum degree of adhesion to a certain explicit normative system demanded by the reformers, does not seem to be much in operation here. I will argue that the notion of acceptability is more appropriate for explaining the social acceptation observed here. Like the notion of governance, the notion of acceptability would benefit from being extracted from its origins in administration to be critically adopted by the social sciences.

6These two arguments are situated within an analytic framework inspired by new historical institutionalism, in particular the recent developments from a more openly sociological perspective. Three elements in this analytic field appear particularly fruitful with regards to the current investigation. The first is to consider social norms as the historical legacy of concrete political struggles – far removed therefore from any cultural invariant. The second element is the emphasis on the ambiguous and contested nature of all social norms – a contestation that is itself closely connected to power struggles. As John Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen have noted, “struggles over the meaning, application and enforcement of institutional rules are inextricably intertwined with the resource allocations they entail”. [5] These ambiguities and contestations give the normative institutions some flexibility which doesn’t prevent them from continuing to structure behaviour and limiting the space of what it is possible to say and do. [6] Finally, the third element concerns the mechanisms of gradual change that are revealed by new historical institutionalist literature, particularly regarding overlapping institutions. [7] This mechanism in fact refers to the addition of new rules to pre-existing ones, which in the long term may lead to an alteration of the logic of prior rules, as a function of “differential growth”, [8] and thus compromise their reproduction. Establishing a lasting cohabitation between contradictory rules is appropriate for reforms that do not have sufficient legitimacy to be introduced on a wider scale. Overlapping institutions thus tend to generate acceptability rather than legitimacy.

7The approach here is threefold. I will begin by refuting two alternative explanations of the social acceptance of privatisation: the first is based on an economic approach and the second in terms of resource mobilisation. I will then show how, in the case of both Cartagena and La Paz-El Alto, the social acceptance or refusal observed were the result of differentiated adjustments between the old and the new systems of norms. Finally, we will see that these adjustments were not the product of any actual work of legitimisation, and that henceforth we should distinguish between notions of acceptance, legitimacy and acceptability.


The two cases presented here were analysed as part of my PhD thesis in political science (awarded in 2012) [9] which also included two other cases (Cochabamba in Bolivia and de Campo Grande in Brazil). The privatisation of La Paz-El Alto was initially the object of a Research Masters thesis (2006), with primary fieldwork conducted in April-May 2006. This was then complemented by a second period of fieldwork (February-March 2008), whilst the study of Cartagena took place between September and December 2007. I conducted 41 semi-structured interviews with institutional representatives at the local and national levels, and surveyed poor users in the neighbourhood of “El Pozon”, between 31 October and 3 November 2007. This survey was based on 68 questionnaires concerning the amount of invoices, abilities to make payments, means of payment, service quality, sewer problems, and perceptions of the ACUACAR service provider, which were complemented by informal conversations. In La Paz-El Alto, 22 officials were interviewed, most of them several times. Non-structured interviews were conducted in El Alto between 2 March and 18 March 2008 with 28 residents of two neighbourhoods (one “central”, Distrito 1, one “peripheral”, Distrito 7). The initial respondents were introduced by the former director of the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils of El Alto, Abel Mamani.
The analysis of the Bolivian case was facilitated by access to the internal archives of the Minister for “Capitalisation”, which retraced the whole privatisation process. In Columbia however, I was only able to access documents available to the public.

Against economicism, beyond resource mobilisation: the pitfalls of two hypotheses

8Two major categories of hypotheses have been formulated, more or less implicitly, to explain the social acceptance or refusal of privatisation in Latin American towns. The first, generally developed by economists, sees acceptance as dependent on the material impact of privatisation on the poor users of peripheral neighbourhoods. The second, most often developed (or implied) by critical observers, sees acceptance as dependent on the powerlessness of these same users when they do not have sufficient resources to mobilise against it. Neither of these two approaches, however, is able to satisfactorily explain certain characteristics of the case studies in question.

The economistic reading of privatisations

9When international economists and consultants have studied social attitudes to privatisations, they have generally focused their attention on three main indicators, considered essential for the well-being of users (particularly the very poor): tariffs, service quality, and the number of new network connections made by the provider. On the basis of these three factors, a number of experts have therefore established a globally positive evaluation of privatisation; and this has only increased their mystification regarding the social protests that have occurred. [10] Other expert evaluations have instead noted a lack of correlation – in either direction – between the public or private status of the service operator and these three major indicators. [11] In both cases, observers remain perplexed.

10In fact, these two cases provide a good illustration of the lack of correlation between economic “performances” and social acceptance. We could even argue, on the contrary, that the privatisation of La Paz-El Alto in fact had more positive material effects and less negative effects for the poorest users, than that in Cartagena. Table 1, below, summarises the evolution of these three indicators in these two towns.

Table 1

Socio-economic impacts of privatisation on poor users in peripheral neighbourhoods[12]

Table 1
Cartagena La Paz-El Alto Evolution of drinking water and sanitation prices for the poorest users (in real terms, value of national currency in the final year of the study) +56% (1995-2008) +3% (1997-2006) Annual number of new drinking water connections 7726 (1995-2009) 10885 (1997-2006) Annual number of new sanitation connections 6781 (1995-2009) 7942 (1997-2006) Quality of service (actual availability, flow rate, frequency of service outages) Strong improvement Improvement

Socio-economic impacts of privatisation on poor users in peripheral neighbourhoods[12]

11It is important to qualify and nuance the construction of these indicators. As far as the evolution of water rates in Cartagena are concerned, the increase for the households at the lowest end of the revenue scale was the result of two separate processes. As we will see in the next section, the water and sanitation rates in Columbia are divided into six categories, which in theory reflect the users’ standard of living. In this so-called “stratified” system, the poorest users (those in strata 1 to 3) are subsidised by the rates of the wealthiest strata (5 and 6), and stratum 4 pays the base rate. As a result, for users in stratum 1 (the poorest) two processes played out conjointly. On one hand there was an increase in base rates (i.e. the rates of stratum 4), which was mechanically transferred to the other categories, and on the other hand, there was a reduction in the amount of subsidies received by the lowest strata.

12In La Paz-El Alto, the rates for domestic users remained the same in dollars throughout the concession, but fluctuated in national (Bolivian) currency depending on the exchange rate. However, this nominal stability is relative if we take into account the 38.5% increase in water rates decided in 1996. Yet it remains true that the rates in La Paz-El Alto were the lowest of all the major towns in Bolivia, without the public providers in the other towns having been confronted with protests in any way comparable to those of El Alto.

13Additionally, as far as new connections are concerned, the overall perspective is one of a significant extension of the network in the two towns, tempered, however, by the simultaneous (but generally informal) growth of the peripheral neighbourhoods. Moreover, the rhythm of the new connections significantly decreased in El Alto during the last years of the concession, as we will see below.

14Ultimately it seems quite difficult to attribute the difference in social protest to significant differences in the material impact of these privatisations on populations, particularly the most vulnerable. Rates increased in the same proportions in the two towns and even remained considerably lower in absolute terms in La Paz-El Alto. In both cases, the number of users connected to the network increased significantly, even if the growth of peri-urban areas prevented real universal access to services. Finally, in both cases, privatisation was accompanied by an improvement in the quality of the service provided. [13]

Social acceptance and mobilisation of resources: the stumbling blocks

15Critical observers of privatisation have a tendency to focus on major social protests, celebrating the “water wars” for attacking the commercialisation of a perceived common good. [14] Yet they rarely propose a systematic consideration of the differences between social mobilisations. However, their incidental reflections do point towards the following hypothesis: privatisation fundamentally constitutes a process establishing new forms of capitalist domination, against which populations would have very legitimate reasons (principles, material interests etc.) to revolt. Their mobilisation however is liable to be hampered by the lack of resources available to them, even though the key to the withdrawal of these private operators apparently lies specifically in the ability of “movements for water, unions, political and environmental groups […] to mobilise in a coherent way and over a sufficiently long term”. [15] These structures for mobilisation are seen as being all the more efficient when they evolve in a “broader political context” that is favourable to them. Belén Balanya and his colleagues thus take the example of Uruguay, where “the water movement (was) successful as it came at a time of major political changes and a political shift to the left.” [16]

16These observations therefore often – implicitly more than explicitly – draw on reasoning that is inspired by the sociological approach to resource mobilisation. These classical approaches emphasise the role of organisations in structuring mobilisations. Organisations provide certain indispensable resources: beyond shared targets and objects of hostility, they provide activists, financial resources, expertise, experience, access to media and so forth. [17]

17Without denying the general importance of organisational resources in the emergence of mobilisations, it does not seem that the differences in mobilisation observed between our two cases can be explained by a significant difference in available resources. Two phenomena in particular do not fit well with this analysis. Firstly, in Cartagena, the failure of certain otherwise active protest structures to successfully mobilise the populations of peripheral urban areas; and secondly the identity of the main actors in the mobilisation of El Alto, who were for the most part users already connected to the network, rather than users excluded from it, even though the resources of both groups were not significantly unequal.

The failure of protest entrepreneurs in Cartagena

18Contrary to certain platitudes that tend to deplore the political apathy which supposedly characterises the population of the Caribbean coast, in Columbia there is in fact a strong tradition of political mobilisation in Cartagena. Much like the Columbian population overall, the middle classes in particular held local “civic” strikes (paros cívicos) in the 1970s and 80s to express their discontent with the poor quality of local public services. [18] These movements would ultimately lead to the election of a new mayor in 2007, a university professor and a union leader, in opposition to all of the important local families.

19It was in this context of criticism of the management of local public services that the Civic and Social Foundation for Cartagena (FUNCICAR) was created in 1993. This NGO proclaimed its desire to work toward “clean governance” for the town. [19] Along with other organisations, it created the “Social Control Front” which aimed, among other things, to observe the implementation of a blueprint for water and sanitation. The NGO then became interested in the awarding of government contracts in the sector, given that – as the political scientists LaDawn Haglund and Gabriel Gomez have shown – suspicions of corruption were widespread. [20] A project to build a large underwater pipeline to carry the town’s wastewater into deep sea was particularly criticised. The water provider ACUACAR, largely managed by Aguas de Barcelona, thus found itself constantly confronted with accusations of corruption, even extending to the alleged complicity of the World Bank, [21] particularly from the regional audit institution and certain town councillors. The project was also widely criticised for its environmental consequences.

20Another recurrent source of discontent was the level of profits made by Aguas de Barcelona, particularly considering the modest amount of equity engaged (scarcely 4.44 million euro, for a total investment of 240 million euro). Experts at the French Agency for Development (AFD) thus calculated the return on equity for the Spanish provider, looking at the value of the shares distributed between 1995 and 2008 relative to the equity engaged, and obtaining the spectacular result of 210%. [22] Accusations of super-profit were made by the minister of Economic Development himself during several public meetings. [23]

21However, FUNCICAR failed to mobilise the population, particularly in peripheral areas, either on corruption or on the issue of the company’s profits. The public meetings organised on these themes only attracted a few dozen people. When the Federation’s president decided to leave Columbia following threats to his person, the “Social Control Front” failed to organise anything more than a one-off rally of support.

22In summary, in Cartagena there were organisational resources that could have, in theory, constituted vectors of politicisation and mobilisation in peripheral neighbourhoods, around themes of the operator’s super-profits (which, if they had been reduced might have enabled a decrease in water rates), and excessive costs for certain major water management projects. It is therefore difficult to impute, a priori, the social acceptance of privatisation to the lack of any organisational vehicle for possible protest in this case.

El Alto: mobilisation without those excluded from the network?

23The town of La Paz-El Alto undeniably possesses an extremely dense organisational network, notably articulated around “neighbourhood assemblies” (juntas vecinales). These were originally created by the revolutionary government of 1952 to familiarise itself with the demands of the population, and to gain autonomy from public authorities. Just as in the agro-pastoral areas of Altiplano, these assemblies generally functioned on the principle of compulsory participation in general meetings (once or twice a month), [24] the revocability of leaders, and active participation in the maintenance works in the neighbourhood. [25] At the end of the 2000s, El Alto had more than 600 juntas organised into a powerful federation at the town level, the FEJUVE.

24These assemblies did not stop at the borders of the drinking water distribution network, and many neighbourhoods that were not connected to the network had their own juntas. However, as the sociologist Franck Poupeau has noted, these non-connected neighbourhoods generally remained on the side-lines of the mobilisation. The latter was essentially the work of neighbourhoods that were already connected. The inhabitants of the more peripheral zones, Districts 7 and 8 in particular, did mobilise, but rather to express their refusal of the departure of the private operator and to demand that the latter accelerate the investments it had committed to.

25The explanation of the mobilisation differential as a differential in available resources is therefore not very convincing. In Cartagena network users in fact refused to be organised, whilst in El Alto certain fractions refused to mobilise to demand the departure of the private operator, and instead mobilised to demand that it did not leave. This article will show that differentiated normative adjustments provide a better account of the social acceptance in Cartagena and the social refusal in El Alto.

Social acceptance and normative (mis)adjustments

Cartagena: the perpetuation of a socio-clientelistic norm in access to water services

26After briefly retracing the formation of a socio-clientelistic norm regarding access to water in Cartagena, this article will show that privatisation did not fundamentally challenge this, and instead considerably improved the efficiency of its implementation.

The formation of a socio-clientelistic norm in access rights

27In Columbia, the universalisation of access to drinking water was established as a national priority from the 1950s onwards, at the same time as the process of urbanisation began in the country. Previously controlled by local governments, the regulation and financing of this sector were then subject to a process of nationalisation under the auspices of the Minister for Public Works. [26] As part of this new system, massive subsidies were awarded by the state to local public enterprises providing water and sanitation (for their functioning as well as for their investments). These subsidies aimed (among other things) to compensate the operators for the very low rates that were implemented for poor users; rates which otherwise would have hardly encouraged investment in the expansion of access in peripheral areas.

28In addition, from the end of the 1960s, the “stratification” system was progressively established, in which the richer “strata” subsidised the poorer ones. Thus, by financing the extension of services by public spending rather than by the rates charged to poorer users, these developmentalist social policies for water access expressed the intention for all users eventually to be connected to the network, with, moreover, rates adapted to their abilities to pay. At the national level, the proportion of those connected to the drinking water network increased from 29.3% in 1951 to 76.4% in 1993. In Cartagena, even though the financial situation of the municipal public enterprise, EPMC, deteriorated significantly during this period (and with it the quality of the service provided), the priority of expanding the water network connections never faltered. Access to drinking water increased from 40% in 1983, to 72% in 1994, even though the town went from 490,000 inhabitants in 1985 to 750,000 in 1995. [27] From the end of the 1980s, this demographic growth was further fuelled by the populations fleeing the armed conflict unfolding in the surrounding rural areas. In 2000, the town officially housed some 32,000 displaced families.

29In the peripheral areas, however, these national social policies combined with another form of access regulation of a clientelistic nature. In this context, inhabitants of areas not yet connected, or poorly serviced, placed themselves under the protection of a local patron responsible for transmitting their demands to the municipal councillors who essentially controlled the management of the EPMC and its investment strategies. This system was initially used by the 265 neighbourhoods of the town. Each of them had (and still has) management bodies, town action committees (Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC), with a dozen or so members, who are partly appointed and partly elected. These neighbourhoods are then grouped into fifteen “communes”, which each have deliberative bodies, the “local administration committees” (Junta de Administración Local, JAL). The JAL is made up of nine members, the “ediles”, who act as the crucial intermediaries between the local JAC and the municipal councillors. [28]

30From these practical political struggles, at the national as well as the local level, emerged a certain access norm that we might describe as socio-clientelistic. In this context, users from peripheral areas of Cartagena could reasonably hope for full connection to the domestic water system at accessible rates. The interpretation of this norm was fundamentally an object of struggle. But these struggles were closely structured by this norm: they concerned not the principle of fundamental rights to access water, but the modalities of this access (through universal citizenship claims? through allegiance to a local patron?) and the time that its implementation would take. Therefore, whether as a social right or as a right conditional on allegiance, access to the water network was universally considered a right.

31This norm would be threatened by the national project to reform water services that was undertaken in the early 1990s. Indeed the 1994 Columbian law reforming “residential public services” clearly displayed its neoliberal ambitions. In particular it announced a dismantling of state subsidies to local public enterprises, and a compulsory evolution of these businesses towards completely autonomous funding. In claiming to reinforce the legal and financial independence of these suppliers with regards to local governments, the promoters of the law sought to end the clientelistic mechanisms representing the interests of peri-urban users. It wanted to replace this norm with the capitalist rationale according to which each client-user would benefit from the same impersonal treatment on the part of the distribution company. [29] In Cartagena, the introduction of the private operator in 1995, following pressure from the Minister for Economic Development and the World Bank, was clearly a part of this national reform process.

32However, as we will see, in spite of its overt pretensions privatisation did not challenge the essentially socio-clientelistic regulation of access, or the underlying norm.

Renewal of social policies for water in an era of privatisation

33Far from the financial disengagement announced in the 1994 law, the Columbian state and the municipality of Cartagena continued to invest massively in access to drinking water and sanitation in the town. In Cartagena this continuity of the socio-developmentalist state was embodied in the signing of two major programmes for investment, one with the World Bank (117.2 million dollars) and the other with the Inter-American Development Bank (40.5 million dollars). In fact, the final cost of these projects was essentially borne by the municipality and not by the company – via the amount of its “water and sanitation” tax transfers – and to a lesser extent by the state itself. Aguas de Barcelona only financed around 19%. [30]

34The maintenance of massive subsidies and large equalisation payments enabled affordable rates for the poorest residents to be preserved. These rates only increased modestly and gradually. Whilst the 1994 law set a subsidy threshold of 50% for the poorest households, it was only in 2004 that the subsidies paid to the poorest households in the town dropped below this threshold. [31] These increases were not felt too harshly: the results of a study conducted in 2007 on 68 households in the El Pozon [32] neighbourhood showed that 93% of them did not consider their water to be more costly than before. [33]

35The continuity of social policies regarding water access and the financial commitment of the state alongside privatisation constituted a clear sign to inhabitants that they were still – and perhaps even more than before – citizens and not just clients; that they would eventually be connected to the network and this access would be protected even if they had difficulties paying. These policies also had a more indirect effect. As we will see, they secured substantial profits for Aguas de Barcelona, and this protection gave the company the means to deploy strategies for additional social adjustments and clientelistic approaches in the peripheral urban areas.

Socio-commercial innovation by Aguas de Barcelona

36Benefiting from strong public financial support, the managers of Aguas de Barcelona had the strategic intelligence to modernise the socio-clientelistic regulation of water access in peripheral neighbourhoods, rather than attempt to dismantle it. First of all, the Spanish operator implemented a vast range of socially oriented commercial innovations, which actively contributed to its acceptance. It first made an effort to decease the costs of connection to the water network. In 2007, the official cost of standard connection was around 120 dollars, but Agbar proposed a subsidised option with echeloned payments. Users could initially spend under 10 dollars. As one resident of the El Pozon neighbourhood explained “even with the reimbursement of my connection, I pay half as much as before, you can’t complain!” [34]

37Yet payment difficulties still existed. For this reason, ACUACAR created a “community attention” service, made up of a dozen social workers and designed to ensure individualised monitoring of users who were behind in their payments, in order to find solutions with the fewest penalties possible. One of these social workers said, “Generally I meet with two households per hour. We look over the invoices, and the revenues. I would say that I find a solution in about a third of cases, the other two thirds really can’t pay.” [35] For these two thirds ACUACAR established “payment contracts” (convenios de pago), which, for a small penalty fee, transferred the amount unpaid onto the next month and simultaneously committed the provider to not disconnecting the user. [36] These contracts could be set for a period of 12 years maximum. In 2006, nearly 21,000 payment contracts had been established for a total value of nearly 9 million dollars. [37] This flexibility in regards to debtors was a signal to users that, more than a simple commercial strategy corresponding to narrow interests, the company recognised that access to water was indeed, if not an unconditional right, at least an essential service from which exclusion could only be a last resort.

38This continuity, along with improved efficiency, can also be observed in the clientelistic dimension of regulation that ACUACAR partly extended, whilst updating the forms it took.

Maintaining clientelistic strategies

39When it arrived, Aguas de Barcelona was immediately confronted with the expansion of informal neighbourhoods, which could not benefit from individual connections because they lacked formal property titles. This was particularly the case in the Nelson Mandela neighbourhood, which was created during a spontaneous land occupation during the 1990s, and which, at the beginning of the 2000s, was home to more than 50,000 inhabitants. [38] While the property situation of the neighbourhood was being considered, and after much consultation with local leaders, ACUACAR installed standpipes that were connected to the network, equipped with water meters, and which each provided water for between 120 and 1,188 families. The management of these fountains (maintenance and organisation of sale) was entrusted to the different neighbourhood leaders, who consequently became contractual workers for ACUACAR. The management positions thus created ensured the re-inclusion of certain actors previously involved as former service providers (water carriers or burroductos, wholesale owners of water tankers and so forth).

40Moreover, the local populations still had an influence on the investment decisions of the service provider, through certain clearly defined modalities, and notably through the local leaders who retained their role as key intermediaries. One of them explained:


“ACUACAR, I saw them every week for more than a year: together we thought about the stages for putting in sewage pipes, I told them that lack of drainage was the biggest problem in the neighbourhood, they should be able to do something. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. For example we won a court case against them in 2007, because they didn’t repair the roads properly after their roadwork.” [39]

42This involvement of local leaders very closely connected to residents maintained a personalised regulation of the service, which as we can see was not entirely free from tensions with ACUACAR. Here, as elsewhere, clientelistic regulation was never free from mobilisations and direct challenges on behalf of the “clients”, which served to establish a kind of responsibility on the part of the “patrons”, who were in turn anxious to show they were responsive to their demands.

43Finally, in the neighbourhoods connected to the network, the company was able to demonstrate their tolerance regarding illegalities such as re-selling neighbourhood water and unauthorised connections. The high levels of water lost on the network (43% in 2009, a much higher figure than the 30% foreseen in the Columbian legislation) is in fact predominantly due to the persistence of illegal connections. This is where the municipality played an essential role within the ACUACAR joint venture, having on several occasions ensured Agbar defer plans for the repression of fraud. [40] The director of a local NGO concluded that:


“The mayors don’t want to get on the wrong side of the populations. They like inaugurating new connections with fanfares, rather than making life impossible for people by disconnecting them. So they don’t do everything they could to repress fraud.” [41]

45Ultimately, the social norm governing access to the drinking water network, between a universal right and an individual right, was essentially preserved during privatisation, thanks to the maintenance of strong public investment. The inability of city-centre NGOs to mobilise people from the peripheral neighbourhoods can thus be explained by the fact that the criticisms against privatisation (lack of transparency, excessive profits) seemed secondary in the eyes of the users. They did not represent a fundamental challenge to the social agreement and the norms associated with it (these accusations of corruption were in fact less extensive than those against the previous public enterprise). In fact, water is still managed as a public good in Cartagena, combined with clientelistic strategies in neighbourhoods on the edges of the access network. The essential difference between public and private management lies in the efficiency of this management, which has considerably increased with the private operator whether in terms of access, flow rate, continuity of service, or the turnaround for dealing with complaints. Daily life has been substantially improved for a significant proportion of the population.

La Paz-El Alto: normative shock and the destruction of clientelistic mobilisation

46Before the introduction of the French private service provider Lyonnaise des eaux in 1997, access to the drinking water network in the urban area of La Paz-El Alto was regulated by ongoing negotiations between the central state, the two municipal governments of La Paz and El Alto, and the neighbourhood assemblies mentioned above. In part, these interactions followed a logic of clientelistic subordination. However, the intensity that accompanied the socio-universalist claim, particularly in the late 1970s, encourages us to look beyond the description of socio-clientelism used for the case of Cartagena and talk instead in terms of a norm of clientelistic mobilisation. This is not a question of essence but of degree in the intensity of the population’s socio-universalist expectations of access to the water network. We will see how, after the early years of operation that could have opened the way for a normative arrangement similar to that of Cartagena, this clientelistic mobilisation was in fact brutally thrown into question. This, in fact, prepared the terrain for the protests that followed.

The formation of a norm of clientelistic mobilisation

47In El Alto it was historically the neighbourhood assemblies rather than the municipality which articulated the demands of users and received a proportion of the public resources in exchange for residents’ contribution to maintenance work, as part of a “conflictual subcontracting” process. [42] As the sociologist José Blanes notes, negotiations between the assemblies and the municipal services took place within an essentially clientelistic logic, “project by project, assembly by assembly”. [43]

48As in Cartagena, however, relations between public authorities and the juntas cannot be reduced to simple clientelistic subordination. Indeed, from the 1980s onwards, the assemblies tended to formulate their demands in terms of universal and unconditional access. At the same time, the balance of power in their relations with the public authorities gradually shifted, opening the way for a more conflictual and dynamic relationship, accurately described as what Christopher Clapham has termed “clientelistic mobilisation”. [44] The municipalities were effectively weakened by the new political competition between local elites following the introduction of direct election for mayors in 1985, and by several corruption scandals which had led to high levels of politico-administrative instability. [45] Moreover, the so-called “popular participation” law, voted in 1994, had raised the neighbourhood assemblies to the rank of “basic territorial organisations” (OTB) with new formal prerogatives in the areas of control of public spending and infrastructure planning.

49Thus, on the eve of the privatisation, the assemblies and their federation were engaged in broad-ranging negotiations with the public water and sanitation provider, SAMAPA; these negotiations covered the allocation of investments, and the nature of commercial policies (use of water meters, sanctions for unpaid bills), as well as the rates applicable to each category of user (the tariff structure involved more than 150 categories). [46] This clientelistic mobilisation introduced its own norm regarding access, which was entirely related to concrete political struggles and had very little to do with the direct translation of the supposedly secular cultural heritage. It performed and reproduced the principle according to which, by mobilising and calling on the municipal and national authorities, the “peripheral’ users” could hope to accelerate the rhythm of their connection to the water network, in favourable conditions. It was these expectations that would be radically thrown into question with the introduction of the private operator Aguas de Illimani in 1997, after a few years of fragile accommodations.

The first years (1997-2001): the promise of normative accommodation?

50The replacement of the public enterprise SAMAPA by a private consortium, Aguas del Illimani S.A. (AISA), led by the group Lyonnaise des eaux, was a rapid process. [47] It was as opaque as it was discreet, and was directly piloted by the central state rather than by the municipalities. This “express” privatisation was made possible by the weakness of all the counter-powers in Bolivia in the mid-1990s, particularly the unions (profoundly defeated by the neoliberal “shock therapy” in place since 1985), opposition parties, and local governments. However, at least on the surface, it seemed to lead to a contract that was extremely favourable to poor users in peripheral areas.

51Indeed, the AISA consortium committed to connecting no fewer than 71,752 new households to the drinking water network between 1997 and 2002, and to increasing their level of access to the wastewater network from 41% to 90% in 2021. These extensions were to be associated with a programme of land regularisation. The press labelled the programme of access expansion “gigantic”, [48] and the World Bank consultants soon made it a model for “pro-poor” [49] contracts. A fundamental ambiguity nonetheless surrounded these access objectives, which would turn out to have important consequences for what followed. The contract made a distinction between two kinds of area: one “serviced” (area servida), which corresponded to the approximate perimeter of the former public operator and to which the previously mentioned rates applied; the other “non serviced” (area no servida) which corresponded to all the rest of the administrative territory of the La Paz-El Alto urban area. For the latter area, the operator had no legal obligation to provide service (even though it had, in theory, a monopoly on service there, as well as within the serviced area). At the time of signing the contract, this area no servida essentially covered peripheral zones that were far-off and sparsely populated. Unfortunately these zones were also those with the highest rates of demographic growth.

52In this context, the first years were marked by a rapid extension of service access. At the same time the operator attempted to make profitable use of the previous actors and arrangements which had typified “clientelistic mobilisation”, whilst trying to give them a more managerial and less political role. One of the key elements in this attempt at institutional conversion was the proposition made to the juntas to establish low-cost connection offers. This consisted in using pipes that were smaller than traditional pipes, buried less deeply, and connected directly to the houses. Residents were mobilised for the installation (preparing the soil, digging trenches, laying pipes, installing septic tanks etc.) and for the maintenance works on the network, as part of an attempt to re-appropriate traditional sub-contracting. These “connections with neighbourhood cooperation” (obras con participación vecinal – OPV) represented 56% of new connections in 2005. [50]

53At the same time, AISA developed a strategy of consultation and cooperation with the FEJUVE. The consortium set up a representative office in El Alto and held regular meetings; each week, representatives of the assemblies met with the managers of AISA to present the needs of each zone, to examine possible solutions, and to be informed about the progress of investment and works. [51] Over the course of these meetings, for example, the FEJUVE in El Alto were able to ensure the preservation of 60 standpipes on the network in certain non-serviced areas.

54This strategy of accommodation and consideration of pre-existing norms seemed to bear fruit during the first years. We can see this for example in the fact that although “water wars” activists emerged in 2000 in Cochabamba, the third largest city in the country, they failed to export their struggle elsewhere in the agglomeration. [52] But the operator was ultimately disappointed by the low water consumption of households in El Alto (44 litres per day, compared to 140 litres per day in La Paz) and the lower than anticipated income that resulted from it. In 2001, its net profits were expected to be negative.

55Tensions with the Minister and regulators in the sector also emerged in 2001, the year in which the contract was to be renegotiated. AISA moved to negotiate more advantageous conditions. Concerned about the potential impact of an increase in rates, which was one of the causes of the “water wars” in Cochabamba, the regulator chose to opt instead for two measures that seemed less politically risky but which would eventually lead to the social refusal of the privatisation.

From fragile accommodations to a normative shock

56The first disposition enacted during the renegotiation of the contract in 2001 was a substantial increase in fees for connection: from 155 to 196 dollars for drinking water and from 180 to 249 dollars for wastewater evacuation. The total amount, 445 dollars, was equivalent to 9 minimum wages in Bolivia at the time. The second disposition was the drastic reduction in the mandate for the extension of the service into “non serviced” areas. It was initially intended that AISA install some 36,700 new connections for drinking water in this area before 2006. But this objective was lowered to 15,000 in 2001, then to 8,000 in 2003, before finally dropping to 0 in 2005. In other words, as was already the case between 1997 and 2002, AISA was freed from any obligation for service beyond the more solvent area already serviced.

57The effects of these dispositions were added to the disillusionment provoked by the real costs of the so-called “social” connections. The users who opted for these “low-cost” connections did make initial savings, but studies have shown that once all the real costs are taken into account (maintenance costs, materials bought by the users, amount of interest when the connection was funded by credit), these connections were actually more expensive than conventional ones. These higher than expected costs came on top of the technical vulnerability of the system: frequent breakages and clogging etc. Thus, initially seen as signalling that this was a business concerned about poor users, these connections came to be considered as “poor service for the poor”; [53] second rate service, the material expression of the reinforcement of political, social, and urban relegation.

58This sudden tightening of access conditions had implications that went well beyond material impact. Effectively it meant making a starker distinction between citizens who were “connected” or “connectable”, and second-rate citizens for whom connection was debatable, debated, and finally dispensed with. After 2002, nearly 80% of new connections to drinking water were so-called “densification” connections, in neighbourhoods where the main pipelines were already laid. Residents in the more peripheral areas, who represented some 130,000 people, saw their hopes of soon being connected firmly quashed.

59This marginalisation was felt even more keenly because it echoed a more general feeling of marginalisation and the rupture of the social pact that had been in place since the mid-1980s. It was therefore no accident when the offices of AISA in El Alto caught fire for the first time in 2003, in a broader context of protest against tax increases (inpuestazo) decreed by the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Overall, 2003 was a year of social turmoil in Bolivia, which culminated in a direct confrontation between activists and the government. This confrontation resulted in 60 deaths and led to the flight of President Sanchez de Lozada to the United States. Although the main struggle was to do with the control of natural gas resources, beyond that it was the neoliberal regime of growth (in place since 1985) that came under fire. In this context, AISA’s manifest refusal to pursue the expansion of access to the water network, when it was technically and economically able to do so, seemed to magnify the elites’ negation of the economic and social “rights” of the majority of the population. After the 2001 census, 15% of households in El Alto had no electricity, and 37% of dwellings were classified unsanitary. According to Julian Perez, then a technical advisor for the FEJUVE:


“For us, the water wars were a struggle within a broader struggle: a fight against the oligarchy, their contempt, their racism; against passive obedience and against the neo-colonial state.” [54]

61Following the “gas wars” of October 2003 the FEJUVE elected a new executive committee, made up of combative activists who were focused on rejecting the clientelistic arrangements put in place by the former leaders. [55] But the radicalisation of demonstrators against the privatisation in fact occurred mainly “from the ground up”, driven by the grassroots participants in the neighbourhood assemblies which put pressure on their representatives, who were otherwise initially more inclined to compromise. Several social organisations joined together with the neighbourhood assemblies: the Departmental Federation of Peasant Women, the Rural Workers of La Paz Federated Union, the El Alto Regional Workers’ Central, etc. The mobilisations over the following years were punctuated by negotiations around the compensation payments to be made to AISA and heated disputes over the new management model to be implemented, and particularly the forms of “social control” to be granted to users in the management of the service. [56]

62We can see, therefore, that ultimately different normative adjustments (accommodation versus normative shock) provide a good account of the lacunae left by the alternative hypotheses. They allow us to understand why the “neighbours” in El Alto rose up against privatisation, even though the rates, and the rhythm of the new connections made were in fact better than those observed in Cartagena. They also help us understand why the NGOs in the city centre failed to mobilise the outlying neighbourhoods in Cartagena around the themes of corruption and excess profits of the private operator: because these themes did not challenge the social norms in effect. Finally, they allow us to understand why the users already connected to the network played such a decisive role in the mobilisation in El Alto, whilst the non-connected users were much less hostile to the private operator.

Acceptance, acceptability, legitimacy

63In the narrative presented up until this point, one element is clearly missing: that of the political work of legitimation. Such legitimation would have aimed either to defend the compatibility of new and old norms, or – from a maximalist standpoint – to persuade the population of the need to shift their perspective on water services (from an unconditional socio-political right, to an economic service dependent on a certain solvency). In fact, this acceptance was not obtained through strategies of legitimation; it was the unintended result of interaction between elites. It was in particular the influence retained by the previously dominant leaders in the service provision, the legacy of earlier political periods, that finally contributed to the normative accommodation of privatisations.

64Thus, in Cartagena, the political system maintained the political influence of actors attached to defending the social dimension of water policy. This dimension was inscribed in the “social-democratic” Constitution of 1991, which preceded the 1994 law. It not only authorised large tariff subsidies and significant socio-economic equalisation payments between users (thus recognising the stratification system), but even explicitly encouraged them. [57] As one specialist in the sector remarked, “Columbia is perhaps the only country where the Constitution itself […] so clearly states the responsibility of the state in the provision of public services.” [58] These dispositions could thus be defended by a Constitutional Court that was powerful and respected. They could also be invoked by certain state factions, particularly by the Ministry for the Environment, in their negotiations with the more neoliberal factions in the Ministry for Economic Development and the Finance Ministry.

65Following the same logic, the fiscal decentralisation which was enshrined in organic law in 1993 guaranteed large automatic budgetary transfers to the municipalities for their water and sanitation services. [59] Both the state and private operators thus found themselves obliged to seek the agreement of mayors and local councillors for any proposed reform, because their “water and sanitation” budgets would in any event contribute to local investment in the sector, alongside those made by the company itself. It was therefore indeed the decentralisation of power within the Columbian political system – and the impossibility for reformers to impose a fully orthodox privatisation model – that led to the private operator being superimposed over prior arrangements. This ensured the preservation of socio-clientelistic norms operating in the peripheral areas, and ultimately the acceptance of the privatisation.

66In El Alto, on the other hand, the reasons for the normative shock must be sought in the radical monopolisation of powers by the promoters of the private operator. During the 1990s and up until the election of President Evo Morales in 2006, the decision-making process was controlled by a coalition of managing directors at the private operator, a handful of experts from the central administration (the sector regulator and the Vice Minister for Basic Sanitation), as well as a few World Bank personnel. The contract explicitly anticipated that the “technical meetings”, held to evaluate the progress of investments, would take place between these actors alone.

67This characterisation of social acceptance as emergent, rather than politically legitimated, can be summed up in the following figure:


Social acceptance of privatisation: an explicative model


Social acceptance of privatisation: an explicative model

68This schema leads us to privilege the notion of acceptability over that of legitimacy. Certainly, the notion of social acceptability remains subject to suspicion because of its managerial origins. It became popular during the 1990s among project managers in mining management and extraction who wanted to circumvent protests by local populations against these projects. [60] However, this notion does deserve to be fully appropriated by the social sciences. Legitimacy effectively supposes a minimal adhesion to certain normative principles, explicitly promoted by political leaders in their discourse. In the classical reading of Max Weber, in particular, legitimacy is supposed to provide those who are governed with “normative reasons to motivate their subordination”, [61] and even their “compliance”, [62] to the justifications put forward by those who govern them.

69Acceptability, on the other hand, describes reform processes implemented by elite coalitions in discrete areas, not accompanied by any public debate as to their legitimacy. It is thus impossible to dissociate from phenomena of de-politicisation in relation to which a reform may easily provoke indifference, apathy or ignorance; rarely would it provoke the conviction of greater efficiency or adherence to the principles of justice.

70Cartagena provides an illustration of this acceptability through ignorance. Even though the public opinion surveys show that ACUACAR is widely popular, [63] it seems that a significant proportion of users in fact don’t know that the company is private. This was the case for more than half (38) of the 68 households surveyed in the El Pozon neighbourhood during my study. They believed that ACUACAR was simply the new name of the former public enterprise EPMC. As far as La Paz-El Alto was concerned, it rapidly became clear that acceptance of the private operator during the early years by no means equated to an acceptance of the principle of private regulation of access to the water network in peripheral neighbourhoods. On the contrary, when the privatisation process came to pursue its internal logic further, establishing regulation of access based on considerations of solvency and profitability, it almost immediately came under fire. The group Suez-Lyonnaise des eaux, was thus only tolerated as long as the new capitalist norms were simply superposed over the older norms of clientelistic mobilisation that had regulated the access to the service up until that point.

71Maintaining a clear distinction between legitimacy and acceptability thus underlines the usefulness of the notion of acceptance, which can be defined as the simple lack of large-scale political mobilisation against an arrangement in place. Acceptance describes only behaviour that is observed, without presupposing the social motivations that underpin this behaviour. It also leaves room for the investigation of these motivations: full recognition of legitimacy, tolerance, indifference, apathy, resignation, misunderstanding, fear of coercion, etc. This propensity to accommodate “different dispositions of unequal intensity” [64] (well beyond the classical distinction between “consenters” and “assenters” to public policy [65]) distinguishes acceptance from other notions whose efficiency is linked specifically to a stronger connotation of explicative mechanisms. These include notions such as consent (which has the connotation of a minimal recognition of legitimacy), obedience or docility (which both have connotations of resignation or fear of coercion).

Social acceptability: a pre- or post-democratic condition?

72The analysis of mechanisms producing social acceptance of privatisations leads us to emphasise the limits of the notion of legitimacy. Unlike the assumptions of the many economists mobilised by international partners, it is not the greater or lesser legitimacy of the socio-economic “results” of these privatisations that determine their acceptance. [66] At the same time, it is no longer really possible to claim – as some critical observers have done – that these privatisations are fundamentally illegitimate (both in terms of their adoption procedures and their effectiveness), only to then see acceptance simply as the consequence of low levels of resources available to potential insurgents.

73As we have seen in the case of Cartagena, and during the first sequence of the privatisation in El Alto, acceptance was instead clearly the product of a normative accommodation that had only little to do with a genuine recognition of legitimacy. This arrangement took the form of a normative “superposition”, in keeping with the mechanisms of layering identified by new historical institutionalism. This superposition ensured a more or less lasting cohabitation between normative systems, which remained essentially foreign to each other, rather than a hybridisation of these systems which would have meant a progressive conversion of populations to new neoliberal norms of water access. From this point of view, although new normative orders cannot be imposed by decree, as Wolfgang Streeck has made clear, [67] institutional superposition remains a way for governing bodies to introduce new norms alongside old ones. The social attitudes involved in this process are therefore better characterised by the notion of acceptability than that of legitimacy.

74This challenge to the notion of legitimacy is inseparable from a broader interrogation of the democratic nature of the public policies and political systems under consideration. If a flourishing democracy by definition rests on a certain popular legitimacy accorded to political leaders and by extension to their decisions, how can social acceptability be positioned in relation to democratic demands? In reality, the notion seems to present more affinities with that of “post-democracy” put forward by the British sociologist Colin Crouch. According to Crouch, post-democracy is defined by the fact that “while elections certainly still exist and can change governments, the public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle managed by rival teams of professionals, expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given to them.” [68] We could thus hypothesise that acceptability would be to post-democracy what legitimacy is to democracy.

75This kind of post-democracy does not necessarily imply that the formulation of public policy should be controlled by groups that are very small in number. It may also prove compatible with large coalitions that involve very diverse institutions, as long as the participants in these coalitions are carefully selected according to their specialised knowledge and their “consistent” perception of the issue. In fact, in Cartagena, “privatised” water was governed in the framework of elitist pluralism, involving company managers as well as elected representatives and public servants of the municipality, state representatives (Ministers, regulators), international agency staff, and neighbourhood leaders. In El Alto, privatisation was piloted by a coalition that was institutionally plural but politically closed, and which passed reforms that were deeply shocking to the neighbourhood committees and which intensified their feelings of political marginalisation.

76This observation of non-democratic pluralism led the geographer Erik Swyngedouw to return to the notion of post-democracy, using a study of water services. He described post-democracy as “governance beyond the state”, [69] from which more general “post-politics” would ultimately emerge, [70] characterised by the disappearance of the “material and symbolic spaces that enable non-consensual public exchanges”. [71] This governance beyond the state evokes the system of limited pluralist governance that Guy Hermet described; a system that might seem like an “umpteenth method for avoiding overly insistent popular political expression”. [72] It is in this kind of configuration that governments would renounce any genuine pretension to legitimacy and content themselves with acceptability.

77This acceptability, in as much as it is based more on the confinement and avoidance of debate than on legitimacy or the threat of coercion, does not imply any systematic obedience of the governed to the rules that are enacted. It also encourages us to re-appropriate the classic reflections of James Scott on the private daily forms of disobedience. Acceptance of privatisation can indeed occur alongside ongoing actions of low-intensity disobedience and “arts of resistance”, [73] such as clandestine connections to the water network, non-declaration of individual wells, or sabotage of water meters. [74] But these acts of disobedience, as long as they remain private actions and discourses (Scott’s “hidden transcripts”), can in fact be as favourable to reproducing an “acceptable” post-democracy of water, as to challenging it.

78These considerations, although they draw attention to the connection between acceptability and low-intensity democracy, are nonetheless strikingly pessimistic in the context of Latin America, where the idea that social acceptability could be the mark of a general phase of decline for democracy fails to convince. Of course, in Bolivia, the years 1985 to 2006 were marked by a deep political de-mobilisation, in a context of structural adjustment and total defeat of labour unions. [75] But regardless of the general evaluations they may otherwise make, most observers recognise that Evo Morales’ government has since strengthened the capacity of disadvantaged groups to intervene in Bolivian political life. Similarly, in Columbia, the privatisations of the 1990s are in stark contrast to the political turmoil of the 1980s, which led to the adoption of the Constitution of 1991. However, with the perspective of a pacification of the country and the opening up of new political space for the democratic left, it seems difficult to diagnose democratic exhaustion in Columbia today in relation to the high-intensity democracy that preceded this period. Overall, many authors agree that, although the neoliberal period in the region “strengthened the stability of electoral democracy, but limited its quality”, [76] one of the less controversial effects of the left-wing turn in the 2000s has been the return to questions of the democratisation of political life and public policies. [77] From this perspective, Latin American regimes may still be situated well before the peak of the “democratic parabola” described by Colin Crouch.


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    Maya Alexandresco, quoted in Le Monde de l’économie, 15 March 2005.
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    Of the 89 major contracts delegating water utilities to the private sector which were identified during the 1990s by regional experts, 11 were terminated before they expired, generally due to widespread social protest. See Philippe Marin (ed.) Public-Private Partnerships for Urban Water Utilities. A Review of Experiences in Developing Countries (Washington: The World Bank, PPIAF, Trends and Policy Options, 8, 2009).
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    This separation can also be seen at the broader level of the study of political orders. The classic text by Theda Skocpol on the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions can thus be criticised for only studying cases where revolutions took place. See Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions. A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). By contrast, for a close analysis of the intertwining forces that produce consent in an authoritarian regime see Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance. Economie politique de la répression en Tunisie (Paris: La Découverte, 2006).
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    For a more complete presentation of this research programme see Claire Dupuy and Charlotte Halpern, “Les politiques publiques face à leurs protestataires”, Revue française de science politique, 59(4), 2009, 701-22. In his study of the protests against a high-tension electrical line in the Louron valley in France, Olivier Fillieule had previously showed just how inadequate this dichotomy between insiders and outsiders is in revealing the configurations of heterogeneous alliances between public actors and protesters. See Olivier Fillieule, “Local environmental politics in France: the case of the Louron Valley (1984-1996)”, French Politics, 1(3), 2003, 305-30. From a slightly different perspective, Graeme Hayes has focused on the way actors who were previously considered marginal have been able to progressively become “policy insiders”. See Graeme Hayes, Environmental Protest and the State in France (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). In an entirely different context, that of Morocco under Mohammed VI, Myriam Catusse and Frédéric Vairel have shown the close interconnectedness of mobilisations around the “social question” and local public action. See Myriam Catusse and Frédéric Vairel, “Le Maroc de Mohammed VI: mobilisations et action publique”, Politique africaine, 120, 2011, 5-23.
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    James Mahoney, Kathleen Thelen, “A theory of gradual institutional change”, in James Mahoney, Kathleen Thelen (eds), Explaining Institutional Change. Ambiguity, Agency, and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1-39 (11).
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    This is an important element of cognitive approaches to public policy, which view the framework of public action as considerably limiting available options for change, whilst also not being often subject to rapid adjustments. See Yves Surel, “L’intégration européenne vue par l’approche cognitive et normative des politiques publiques.” Revue française de science politique, 50(2), 2000, 235-54 (235).
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    See Kathleen Thelen, “How institutions evolve: insights from comparative historical analysis”, in James Mahoney, Dietrich Rueschmeyer (eds), Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 208-40.
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    Wolfgang Streeck, Kathleen Thelen (eds), Beyond Continuity. Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 19.
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    Pierre-Louis Mayaux, “La privatisation et ses contestataires: reformes et conflits dans les politiques d’accès à l’eau potable à Carthagène, La Paz, Cochabamba, et Campo Grande (1980-2020)”, PhD thesis in political science, Sciences Po, Paris, 2012.
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    See for example Vivien Foster, Osvaldo Irusta, “Does infrastructure reform work for the poor? A case study on the cities of La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia”, The World Bank, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, 3177, 2003; Felipe Barrera, Mauricio Olivera, “Does society win or lose as a result of privatization? Provision of public services and welfare of the poor: the case of water sector privatization in Colombia”, Latin American Research Network, Research Network Working Paper, R-525 (Washington: Inter-American Development Bank, 2007).
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    See José A. Gomez Ibañez, “Private infrastructure in developing countries: lessons from recent experience”, Working Paper, 43 (Washington: The World Bank, 2008).
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    Sources: P.-L. Mayaux, “La privatisation et ses contestataires….”, 292-5, 299-301 and 503-07.
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    In the context of this article I am not concerned with drawing general conclusions about the superior efficiency of the private sector in providing collective services. In fact, several authors have shown that public operators also produced similarly improved performances over the same period. I am simply concerned with refuting a strictly economistic interpretation of social protest.
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    Riccardo Petrella, The Water Manifesto. Arguments for a World Water Contract (London: Zed Books, 2001); Vandana Shiva, Water Wars, Privatization, Pollution and Profit (New York: South End Press, 2001), 28.
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    David Hachfeld (ed.), “Vers une gestion publique et progressiste de l’eau en Europe: quelques cas remarquables”, Amsterdam/Brussels: Transnational Institute (TNI) & Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), January, 2009, 24.
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    Belén Balanya, Brid Brennan, Olivier Hoedeman, Satoko Kishimoto, Philipp Terhorst (eds), “Reclaiming public water: achievements, struggles and visions from around the world”, Amsterdam/Brussels, Transnational Institute (TNI) & Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), 2005, 270.
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    Susan Eva Eckstein, Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley (eds), What Justice? Whose Justice? Fighting for Fairness in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
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    FUNCICAR was one of the founding members of the Columbian branch of “Transparency International”.
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    LaDawn Haglund, Gabriel Gomez, “Context matters: how state forms and reforms influence water provision in Latin America”, draft paper, Policy Innovations, 2006.
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    Amanda Rives Argeñal, “Private sector participation in municipal water systems in Latin America”, Washington, School of International Service, American University, 2004, 69.
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    Carmen Moreno, “Cartagena discussion”, in Geneviève Dubois-Taine (ed.), Sustainable Urban Services, Santiago de Chile Seminar Report, 10-11 July, 2002, 101.
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    Absentees without justifications were subject to non-negligible financial penalties. See Xavier Albo, “El Alto, la vorágine de una ciudad única”, Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 11(2), 2006, 329-50.
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    Raúl Zibechi has shown how these neighbourhood committees had characteristics similar to the rural ayllus, in terms of their structure, their operational logic, and their territorial embeddedness. See Raúl Zibechi, Dispersar el poder. Los movimientos como poderes anti-estatales (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2006).
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    Through a National Institute for Municipal Development (Instituto Nacional de Fomento Municipal – INSFOPAL).
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    Unlike the mayors, who were only directly elected from 1986 onwards, municipal councillors have been directly elected since the beginning of the twentieth century, and there were nineteen of them at the beginning of the 1990s. See Haglund and Gomez, “Context matters…”.
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    Luis Mauricio Cuervo, “Significado político e implicaciones sociales del actual modelo de prestacíon de servicios públicos domiciliarios en Colombia”, Observatorio de la Economía Latinoamericana, 28, July 2004.
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    P.-L. Mayaux, “La privatisation et ses contestataires…”, 281.
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    See P. -L. Mayaux, “La privatisation et ses contestataires…”, 321, appendix 1.
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    This generally represents between 2% and 2.5% of their monthly income.
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    Interview with Eva Margarita Julio, resident of El Pozon, 31 October 2007.
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    Interview with Eduardo Atencio, employee of ACUACAR, 14 November 2007.
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    Paul Constance, “El día que llegó el Agua” BidAmerica, February 2006.
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    Aguas de Cartagena, “Informe anual 2006”, 2007, 5. In 2010 there were 25,140 operating for a total amount of 28.6 billion pesos (5.29 million dollars).
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    Nickson, “The Córdoba water concession in Argentina”, 24.
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    Interview with Orlando Sierra, member of the Junta de Accion Comunal d’El Pozon between 2003 and 2007, 31 October 2007.
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    A. Nickson, “The Córdoba water concession in Argentina”, 32.
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    Interview with Alonso Doria, director of the Fundacion Civica Pro-Cartagena (FUNCICAR), 28 November 2007.
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    José Blanes, “La Paz, Juntas Vecinales y Comité de Vigilancia”, Toronto, Centro de Estudios Urbanos y de la Comunidad de la Universidad de Toronto Canadá (CEUCUT), April 1998.
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    J. Blanes, “La Paz, Juntas Vecinales y Comité de Vigilancia”, 13.
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    Christopher Clapham, “Private patronage and public power”, in Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Luis Roniger, Patrons, Clients and Friends. Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
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    In 1997, the town of La Paz was up to its seventh mayor in nine years, whereas in El Alto, prosecution for corruption provoked the resignation of three successive mayors in the dominant party.
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    Interview with the president of a neighbourhood committee, El Alto, 26 February 2008.
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    Mentioned for the first time during the summer of 1996 and completed in July 1997, just before the end of the presidential mandate of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
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    “Aguas del Illimani promote dar agua en 100% a La Paz y El Alto”, El Diario, 26 July 1997.
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    Kristin Komives, “Designing pro-poor water and sewer concessions: early lessons from Bolivia”, Water Policy, 3, 2001, 61-79.
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    See Charlotte Pearson, Duncan Mara, Tom Curtis, “Pro-poor sanitation technologies”, Geoforum, 38(5), 2005, 901-07.
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    Interview with Ruben Paz, 25 February 2008.
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    At the beginning of the year 2000, Cochabamba, the third largest Bolivian city in terms of population, was the theatre of a major uprising against the private consortium led by the American group Bechtel, which had managed water and sanitation in the town since the previous year.
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    Franck Poupeau, “Políticas de la escasez”, in Carlos Crespo, Susan Spronk (eds), Después de las guerras del agua (La Paz: Plural, 2007), 209-35. See Carlos Crespo Flores, “La concesíon de La Paz a los cinco años: elementos para una evaluacíon”, Working Paper, DFID, SSR Project R7895, 2001.
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    Interview with Julian Pérez, Cochabamba, 10 March 2008.
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    Interview with Abel Mamani, La Paz, 26 March 2008.
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    The World Bank in particular would continue to actively support the project of a “joint venture”, over the course of 2006, even though it was evident that this solution would be politically unthinkable.
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    Even though it assigned the state the role of “stimulating business” (art. 333), the text clearly defined the Columbian state as “a social state under the rule of law” founded on “solidarity” (art. 1). Chapter 5 is entirely consecrated to residential public services, and enjoins the state to “ensure that all individuals particularly those on low incomes, have effective access to essential goods and services” (art. 367).
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    James D. Wright, The Dissent of the Governed. Alienation and Democracy in America (New York: Academic Press, 1976).
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    This description refers to the two forms of legitimacy that are typically identified: legitimacy based on “inputs”, which refers to the capacity of the decision-making process to take into account broader interests and social demands; and legitimacy based on “outputs” which is linked to the ability of political leaders to tackle and resolve clearly identified problems. See Fritz W. Scharpf, “Interdependence and democratic legitimation”, in Susan, J. Pharr, Robert D. Putnam (eds), Disaffected Democracies. What’s Troubling the Trilateral Countries? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 101-20. However, we must set the relevance of this distinction in perspective given that these two forms of legitimacy appear to be inextricably intertwined in reality. Inputs-based legitimacy is founded on the anticipation of certain outputs desired by majority social groups; and outputs are often justified, in representative regimes, by their conformity with the alleged preferences of the majority.
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    Wolfgang Streeck, Re-Forming Capitalism. Institutional Change in the German Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 17-24.
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    Erik Swyngedouw, “The post-political city”, in Urban Politics Now. Re-imagining Democracy in the Neo-liberal City (Rotterdam: Netherlands Architecture Institute/ BAVO, 2007).
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    Erik Swyngedouw, “Post-democratic cities for whom and for what?”, Regional Studies Association (RSA) Annual Conference, Pecs, Hungary, 26 May 2007.
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    Guy Hermet, “Un régime à pluralisme limité? “propos de la gouvernance démocratique”, Revue française de science politique, 54(1), 2004, 159-78 (162).
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    James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
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    These arts of resistance may of course concern a public operator as well as a private one.
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    Benjamin Kohl, “Stabilizing neoliberalism in Bolivia: popular participation and privatisation”, Political Geography, 21(4), 449-72 (466).
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    Kurt Weyland, “Neoliberalism and democracy in Latin America: a mixed record”, Latin American Politics & Society, 46(1), 2004, 135-57.
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Why did similarly packaged privatisations in Latin America trigger widespread social protests in some cases but not in others? By comparing two privatisations of urban water services, this article highlights different types of adjustments between previous normative systems and new neoliberal ones (normative accommodation vs. normative shock). However, rather than being the result of the political work of legitimisation, these adjustments depend on the extent to which systems of norms may coexist whilst continuing to be foreign to one other. The article concludes by drawing a sharp distinction between legitimacy and acceptability, the latter being typical of low-intensity democratic contexts.

Pierre-Louis Mayaux
Pierre-Louis Mayaux is a researcher at the International Centre for Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), currently hosted by the Ecole de gouvernance et d’économe de Rabat (EGE). His main publications include: (with Yves Surel), “Amérique Latine: les réformes de marché en question”, Revue internationale de politique comparée, 17(3), 2010, 7-22; “Du clientélisme au contrat: stratégies de changement et pérennité des privatisations dans les services d’eau des villes latino-américaines”, Revue internationale de politique comparée, 17(3), 2010, 89-110; (with Hichem Amichi and Sami Bouarfa), “Encourager la subversion: recomposition de l’État et décollectivisation des terres publiques du Bas-Chéliff, Algérie”, Politique Africaine,137, 2015, 71-93. His research primarily covers public policies regarding water, the regulation of conflicts linked to the development of agrarian capitalism and urbanisation, administration of the environment and legitimation of public action (CIRAD, EGE, avenue Mohamed Ben Abdellah Regragui, Rabat, 10112, Morocco)
Translated from French by
Katharine Throssell
Uploaded on on 03/05/2016
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