Water, Electricity and the Poor: Who Benefits from Utility Subsidies?
306 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2019
Date Written: March 19, 2005
Subsidies for utility services are widespread in the water supply, sanitation, and electricity sectors. One motivation is to improve social welfare of the poor by facilitating their access to and use of such services, as well as by redistributing resources to augment their purchasing power. At the same time, such subsidies have often been seen as engendering resource use inefficiencies and financially weak utilities, which hobble efforts to expand and improve service. Those adverse consequences have often been used to argue against charging consumers less than the cost of service. The impact of subsidies on both counts has been the subject of much controversy. The debate has gained renewed vigor as governments seek to ensure that all citizens have ready access to minimal levels of such services while striving to recover a larger share of the costs of utility operations to generate the resources required to sustain service and to improve its quality.
This book makes a substantive contribution to our thinking on a key facet of the debate: the distributional impact of consumer subsidies for urban water supply and electricity services. Drawing together empirical research across a wide range of countries, it documents the prevalence and variants of consumer subsidies found in the developing world and presents a number of indicators that are useful in assessing the degree to which such subsidies benefit the poor. The findings are placed in a broader social protection framework where comparisons are drawn with poverty focused programs in other sectors using a common metric.
The book’s findings are sobering. It concludes that the most common subsidy instruments (quantity-targeted subsidies such as those delivered through increasing block tariffs) perform poorly in comparison with most other transfer mechanisms. Alternative consumption and connection subsidy mechanisms show more promise, especially when combined with complementary nonprice approaches to making utility services accessible and affordable to poor households. Throughout, the authors dissect the many factors contributing to those outcomes, identifying those that policy makers can control and use to improve performance.
Keywords: subsidy, tariff, social protection, poverty, water, electricity
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