Rudolf Amenga-Etego is no stranger to conflict. As a college student in the early 1980s, Amenga-Etego protested Ghana's military rule; government officials threw him in prison and threatened to execute him. A sympathetic army captain helped him escape. These days he's fighting global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The subject of his protests: water.
Amenga-Etego became interested in water in 1999 when a group of his neighbors in the capital, Accra, complained that their water was cut off after rates nearly doubled and they fell behind in their payments. Backed by the World Bank and the IMF, Ghana's government was readying its water system for privatization. "I realized that if we subjected water to market forces, we were going to price out a lot of our citizens from accessing safe water," says Amenga-Etego, a lawyer by training who lives with his wife and three children in Medina, a mixed middle- and working-class suburb of Accra. He quit his job at Ghana's Internal Revenue Service and challenged the water-privatization plans in the courts and on the streets. The government backed down last year and suspended privatization.
So what is Amenga-Etego's alternative? He champions a community government model that breaks with the conventional wisdom that water systems should be run either solely by the state (often at a loss and providing poor service) or by the private sector (at a profit, providing better service but only for those who can afford it). Under Amenga-Etego's model, the government supplies a town with bulk water, and the local community handles distribution, tariff collection and maintenance. Local management makes the system more accountable, he believes: "It's putting power back into people's hands. Water is life, and if people have control over their lives, they are empowered to be more productive."
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