Long ago, when I was stationed abroad with IFC, I joined a visiting colleague in a meeting with a senior government official to talk about public-private partnerships (PPPs). A few junior officials were also there, busy scribbling down everything my colleague said. He talked about the benefits of private sector participation in infrastructure, health and education; he described the various forms PPPs could take; he explained how IFC could provide transaction advice. The official, a man nearing retirement with grey hair and professorial glasses, nodded silently as he listened.
“Are you following everything?” asked my colleague. “If not I’ll be glad to explain anything that isn’t clear.”
“I understand,” he said. “Please continue.”
But I could tell from his body language that he didn’t understand anything at all. And I knew he would never admit a lack of knowledge in front of his subordinates. But there was another reason I suspected the official wasn’t being entirely forthright: I could barely follow the discussion myself.
After the meeting I googled “public-private partnerships” to give myself a crash course. There were literally millions of information sources, but most were difficult to follow. I ground through a few articles and slowly began to understand. But what of the official? At his level of English, it would be nearly impossible for him to educate himself about PPPs.
Why was this a problem? Because the country in question very desperately needed to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure, inject new life into its healthcare system, and bring educational institutions to a higher level. Through PPPs, private sector could potentially contribute financing, managerial expertise and technical know-how to help government address these challenges. But since so few policymakers understood how PPPs worked, it would be hard to tap into these resources.