The Private Sector Is Now Providing Basic Services to Flint

A huge donation of bottled water from Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo to Flint schools represents the displacement of government by corporations.

Roger Schneider / AP

A coalition of some of America’s biggest companies is organizing a trucklift for Flint, promising to deliver 6.5 million bottles of water to the city in order to provide clean drinking water for schoolchildren through 2016. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo say they will deliver 6.5 million bottles to Flint, enough for the city’s 10,000 students.

In October, testing found toxic levels of lead in the water at Flint’s schools. The whole city is grappling with the malign effects of a switch from water provided by the Detroit system to water from the Flint River, which helped corrode the city’s pipes and leach lead into drinking water—in addition to turning the water a putrid brown. The state and federal governments have both declared states of emergency.

That these firms are stepping up to deliver water is good news for Flint’s schools and citizens in the immediate term. But a one-time infusion of gallons of fresh water doesn’t do much to address the systemic failures of government that led to the water crisis in the first place. By making four for-profit corporations into a de facto public utility, the gift might actually risk making things worse in the long run.

The corporate giants aren’t the first to donate water. Everyone from churches to presidential campaigns to, uh, Marky Mark and Diddy have chipped in bottles. The state of Michigan has also begun to provide bottled water, as well as filters. Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is blasting the city for continuing to charge residents for the water they use, even though they can’t safely drink it. In 2014, the average monthly bill was $140 a month.

According to a press release Monday, the state of Michigan has distributed 176,118 cases of water and 93,048 water filters. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, that comes to 4.2 million bottles of water—less than the Walmart/Coke/Nestlé/Pepsi commitment. That number is a little misleading, since the state will continue to distribute more water, whereas the corporate commitment applies to the remainder of the calendar year. But it gives a sense of just how huge the corporate donation is in the scale of response to the water crisis.

The Flint water crisis is above all a human tragedy: The effects of lead exposure on development can be lifelong and irreversible. But it is also a fundamental failure of government. At all levels, government failed to protect citizens. First, on the local level, the city was under the control of an emergency manager, appointed by the governor. Michigan’s emergency-manager law has the effect of severing people from their local governance, withdrawing power from elected officials. (This is by design; one theory is that elected officials are unwilling or unable to make decisions that would alienate voters. But the inverse is also true: Emergency managers can make decisions without accountability.) Local officials did, however, weigh in on the decision to switch away from Detroit water to the Flint River, and the city council voted in favor, 7-1. Once the switch had been made, state and federal officials failed to respond to reports about poisoned water. As I detailed last week, state officials tried to ignore the problem and insisted it was someone else’s mess to clean up. The EPA has also come in for criticism for being too deferential to the state; the regional administrator resigned last week.

Charity has always been an essential element of the American ethos, with private citizens, corporations, and philanthropies helping out in times of need. Yet the Flint case might give some reason for pause. Failures of government and the effective disenfranchisement of Flint voters produced the crisis, and now private-sector philanthropy is jumping in to fill the gap. But that may introduce its own problems.

In 2014, Gara LaMarche, the president of Democracy Alliance and former president of The Atlantic Philanthropies, wrote a searching essay for Democracy interrogating the role of philanthropic organizations. Despite his career in the sector, LaMarche wrote, he worried about “the undemocratic and largely unaccountable nature of philanthropy”:

Why are we—since I too have failed, for years, to ask these big questions—hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics, and the way it perpetuates advantage and inequality, but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?

LaMarche feared a situation in which the largesse of a philanthropist like Bill Gates would allow him to direct the course of events, without any accountability to the public—after all, it’s his money and his foundation. But the big water donation might raise even more uncomfortable questions. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsi aren’t just charitable organizations that might have their own ideologies. They’re for-profit companies. And by providing water to the public schools for the remainder of the year, the four companies have effectively supplanted the local water authorities and made themselves an indispensable public utility, but without any amount of public regulation or local accountability. Many people in Flint may want government to work better, but with sufficient donations, they may find that the private sector has supplanted many of government’s functions altogether.