One bright spring day in New Delhi, I looked down from my terrace to see the square patch of public land called The Commons transformed. In the past, these grounds were so barren that only retired cows visited them. However, there was a glorious garden of pink roses, white snapdragons, and marigolds. Throughout the day, visitors paced around its circular paths, endlessly inspecting the floral details. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old. If you could pull open its squeaky iron gate, a garden of Indian delights was yours.
This ecological wonder became a friendly meeting place of the neighborhood. Maybe even a few romances bloomed that year. The contribution of this garden to our social life was so amazing that I became very curious about its history. Some neighbors said that a local politician personally paid for the project, so he could get his picture in the newspapers. Others suspected that the land had been illegally sold to a private developer who restored grounds to increase the value of his own nearby property. The truth was continually rewoven into an urban folklore that blamed local woes on the bureaucracy’s century-old corruption, so I never got a straight story.
The cynicism around how governments manage public projects sounded very familiar. I have spoken with women all over the world who have suffered from mismanaged public services. There is an endless list of these mismanaged services: water and sanitation programs that started well but deteriorated into a landscape of dry wells and broken water pumps, public hospitals with long waits and shortages of medical supplies, housing projects that collapsed due to mismanagement and corruption.
Women have long been among the primary advocates of a stronger role for government. The women’s movement was historically united in its protest against structural adjustment policies that led to the privatization of public works. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, women have demanded that governments withdraw from across-the-board giveaways to private enterprises because they undercut support for families. In Eastern Europe, women have called for stronger government leadership to offset the decline in free daycare and subsidized housing.
Time and again, we are told that governments must retreat from public enterprises due to financial crises. However, I suspect that the origins of the problems go much deeper and certainly much farther back than a cash shortage. Many governments are acting like severely depressed patients who are unable to act despite clear goals and ambitious plans. They are paralyzed by past failures and afraid to do any more damage, so they avoid taking risks and allow others to fail for them. As a result, the private sector gets the praise for any successes when they do occur, and this reinforces misgivings about government undertakings.
Public officials should be reminded that thousands of private-sector ventures fail daily. The equation is simple: progress requires risk. Why not dismantle government and let the free market decide? The bare truth is that no pure market mechanism would ever have built New York City’s Central Park. Governments must resume their responsibility as guardians of national and global commons. Otherwise, we may lose precious ground to a wilderness of laissez-faire enterprises.
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