This paper has two principal aims: first, to unravel some of the arguments mobilized in the controversial privatization debate, and second, to review the scale and nature of private sector provision of water and sanitation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Despite being vigorously promoted in the policy arena and having been implemented in several countries in the South in the 1990s, privatization has achieved neither the scale nor benefits anticipated. In particular, the paper is pessimistic about the role that privatization can play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015. This is not because of some inherent contradiction between private profits and the public good, but because neither publicly nor privately operated utilities are well suited to serving the majority of low-income households with inadequate water and sanitation, and because many of the barriers to service provision in poor settlements can persist whether water and sanitation utilities are publicly or privately operated. This is not to say that well-governed localities should not choose to involve private companies in water and sanitation provision, but it does imply that there is no justification for international agencies and agreements to actively promote greater private sector participation on the grounds that it can significantly reduce deficiencies in water and sanitation services in the South.