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Surveying a text

Watch the video to find out more about how to 'survey a text' in order to filter information relevant to an essay question.
Let’s survey a research brief, sponsored by the United Nations Development programme. You should look quickly at the title, headings for different sections of the text, any tables, graphs or images, and list of references The title of the text, Privatising Basic Utilities
in Sub-Saharan Africa: The MDG Impact, refers to privatising and also to basic utilities. And utilities include, water, electricity, gas, telephone, which suggests that at least part of this text is relevant to the topic. In addition, the title refers to Sub-Saharan Africa, which is part of the global south, so that’s also a positive indicator of relevance. You will also notice that the title refers to “The MDG Impact”. You may not be aware what MDG refers to, but if you put it into a search engine you will find it refers to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which set targets for reducing poverty around the world.
The image shows a young woman, who seems to be carrying water, perhaps from a public supply, so this again is a positive indicator of relevance. Moving now to the first heading, The Push for Privatisation, this suggests that in this section you might find reasons for the privatisation of utilities. As you glance over this section you will see a lot of dates, which again suggests that here we have a historical review of the trends. On the next page we have a table which gives statistics on access to an improved water source – again this is useful information which you might be able to use in your essay. Further down this page, another heading refers to The Adverse Social Consequences of Privatisation.
The word “adverse” means “negative”, so this suggests that the view of the authors is that privatisation may have been, from the social perspective, a relative failure. It does not state whether this refers specifically to water, but skimming through this section will reveal references to water, and suggests that close reading is a good idea. Finally, let’s look at the references on the final page of the document. There is one reference to a book by the authors of the text which they were about to have published in 2007. In addition there are references to publications by organisations with an international reputation. This suggests that the information in the text is authoritative and reliable.
References are useful because they may lead you to other texts that you could read in preparation for a writing assignment. Bear in mind that if you are on a university programme, you will probably have to provide a list of references with any essay you submit.

Let’s survey a policy research brief ‘Privatising Basic Utilities in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Millennium Development Goal Impact’ from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). You can download the whole text on the UNDP website.

Think about the essay question again.

“Evaluate the success or failure of the World Bank’s approach to promoting water privatisation in the global south”

  • What parts of the texts are particularly useful?

  • Is there any book or article on the list of references which you think would also be relevant for the essay?

Share your ideas in the comment area below.

© Bayliss, K. and McKinley, T. (2007), ‘Privatising Basic Utilities in Sub-Saharan Africa: The MDG Impact’, International Poverty Centre Policy Research Brief no. 3, United Nations Development Programme. Extracts reviewed and reproduced for educational purposes in accordance with UNDP Terms of Use.
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