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Social Impact Bonds – private capital moving in on public service

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Nick G.
South Australia’s Labor government is set to push ahead with a trial of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs).  SIBs allow big money investors to profit by financing volunteer and charity organisations to deliver public services.

SA Health Minister Jack Snelling said on radio recently that the government was pushing ahead with a trial of SIBs and had issued tenders for non-profit organisations (NFPs) to design programs that they would run.

NSW already has two SIBs with a focus on out-of-home care.  WA is keen to contract a SIB focussing on recidivism (reoffending by released prisoners).  SA has identified four possible areas: out-of-home care, recidivism, hospital transfers from residential care facilities, and homelessness.  It has called for suggestions for “other potential focus areas”.

Neo-liberalism: stagnant core and peripheral innovation

In the 1970s the world was awash with capital seeking investment opportunities.  Finance capital held by banks, insurance companies, trust funds and mega-rich individuals increasingly opted for speculative investment away from the industrially productive sector of the economy.

Neo-liberalism emerged with a vengeance to dismantle barriers restricting the free flow of capital and utilised successive advances in technology to speed up and internationalise speculative forays.

Privatisation swept the globe as governments seeking business-friendly credentials competed to divest themselves of social functions and state-owned assets.

Action in support of this agenda led to an equal and opposite reaction as anti-globalisation movements and protests grew and developed.  Concepts of public good were advanced to try and halt the neo-liberal onslaught and an unstable stalemate settled on the economic core mediated in part by parliamentary elections in which privatisation featured as an issue.

The neo-liberal privatisation agenda provided some real investment opportunities for finance capital, but not nearly enough to soak up the vast amounts of over-produced capital values that now exceeded by many times the value of global GDP.  With people’s opposition making further privatisation electorally risky, governments around the world turned to measures they could sell as “partnerships”.  The so-called Public Private Partnership (PPP) model created opportunities for private finance capital to build, design, operate or manage government infrastructure.  The PPP model allowed governments like Labor in South Australia to falsely claim to be “strongly opposed to privatisation. Partnering arrangements are not privatisation….”

The PPP model was an example of innovation in a limited and peripheral area of the economy, an area where traditional funding arrangements meant that governments themselves borrowed the money for public infrastructure projects.  With the neo-liberal agenda having few other items of business than outright intensification of exploitation through reductions in real wages and attacks on rights at work, such innovations at the periphery enabled “other business” to serve as a means of opening areas for investment

SIBs: A new financial product for the mega-rich
It was as an item of “other business” that SIBs emerged in 2010.  PPPs had been exposed as just another form of privatisation and were on the nose in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK so another attempt at fooling the public was needed.

As Snelling put it, “There are lots of very wealthy people around the world who have these philanthropic trusts that are looking for investments”.

Private philanthropists, “social” capitalists, NGOs and charities came together to provide a more politically acceptable model for the privatisation of public services.

Under the SIB arrangement a government offers a contract for the delivery of specified outcomes in an area of social policy; a charity or “social enterprise” raises capital from private investors for the delivery of the service; the government pays on the basis of results and these payments return a profit of around 7.5% to the investors through the contracting charity.

This innovative model sees organisations with a “social conscience” serving as the conduit for the investment of private capital in an area that has traditionally been a public service.

It is peripheral in a double sense:  the investment area is away from the core of capitalism (manufacturing, mining, banking etc) and is imposed on sections of the population who are marginalised, powerless and an underclass.  If the SIB fails to deliver the required results, the investors lose their money, but those in the periphery of society lose what little dignity and self-esteem they may have begun with.

SIBs appeal to Labor governments in particular because they simultaneously boost their credentials as “business-friendly” while hoodwinking their traditional electoral base that this is “not outsourcing”.  Snelling sees the state Labor government of which he is a senior minister as “increasingly acting as a facilitator of public services rather than as a provider”.

DIBs: financial mechanisms for the Third World

Development Impact Bonds take the SIBs model from the social periphery of a developed capitalist nation and put them into the global periphery of the so-called developing world. 

The UK-based Centre for Global Development has partnered with UK-based Social Finance to explore Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) as a new development financing mechanism. Building on the SIB model, DIBs provide upfront funding for development programs in poor nations by private investors, who are remunerated by donors or host-country governments—and earn a return—if evidence shows that programs achieve pre-agreed outcomes. The stated aim is to improve the quality and efficiency of public services in developing countries, but with involvement by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank, the imperative is one of philanthrocapitalism not one of liberation or emancipation from imperialist exploitation.

Capital seeks its own reproduction and a way out of crisis

Private capital has a finite circuit for the realisation of its own reproduction.  The drive to seek out investment opportunities that balance risk with reward is embedded in its genes. The productive core of capitalism is depleted as capital is drawn to fancy financial products that operate in the casino of global speculation.  The system tries to arrest that depletion with innovations at the periphery like PPPs and SIBs or by finding new ways of drawing resources from the finite environment (eg fracking and deep sea mining).

The system is in crisis, but the crisis develops unevenly depending in part on the efficacy of innovations and on the use of new technologies or the exploitation of new resources.

Further Reading:

Social investment bonds -  a new way to privatise public services ( )


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