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Commitment to everyone ? My wish for World Toilet Day

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 17 Nov 2011 11:25 GMT
Author: Ned Breslin, Water For People
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ned Breslin is cheif executive at Water For People. The opinions expressed are his own.

This Saturday, November 19, we will celebrate World Toilet Day. The day has been vital to raising awareness about the 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to a hygienic toilet.

Not having a toilet is a disgrace and a major health catastrophe, directly contributing to the death of approximately 4,000 children worldwide every day.  

Yet coupled with this public health disaster is the growing realization that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation is perhaps the most off track MDG target of all. 

The MDGs are eight measurable goals to be achieved by 2015 established by the United Nations (U.N.) in 2000 to try and alleviate global poverty.

Massive global sanitation problems combined with the utter failure to even remotely reach MDG targets place the sanitation sector at a crossroads.

I have worked in sanitation for over 20 years, and today was another sad day like too many other sad days I have encountered when focused on sanitation.  I spent this morning with Palmiera, a mother who lives in the mountains of Bolivia.

She shows me a small building that is immaculately constructed with brick and cement next to her house.  As I come around the corner I see it is a toilet, with a large international NGO (nongovernmental organisation) logo, with a smaller foreign aid donor emblem just below, painted on the side to pronounce to the world the NGO and donor’s benevolence and presence.  

Entering the toilet, my heart sinks as the latrine is broken – the toilet seat is so dirty that dust flies everywhere as I open it, the water needed to make the toilet work had stopped flowing years ago, and the toilet was now a shed to store the family’s agricultural commodities that will eventually be sold.  It’s a toilet in theory only.

Set against this failure at Palmiera’s house – which is hardly unique – is a shallow debate about foreign aid that states simply that billions of people do not have safe sanitation (true) and that the solution is more foreign aid that is better targeted at countries who are most off track in terms of sanitation coverage (questionable at best).  

Aid, it is argued, is not only misaligned but most importantly not sufficient to create a world where every family, every school and every clinic has access to a toilet that removes pathogen-rich feces from the immediate environment.  

We are losing the battle, it is argued, because governments worldwide are not playing their part, not contributing enough to rid the world of this horror.  

Talk to the most thoughtful field practitioners in the sanitation sector and you might be surprised to hear that the math that reads low sanitation coverage + increased foreign aid = more sustainable sanitation access does not really add up.   

Why?  

Well, we have tried pushing money into sanitation for decades with little effect.  Some would even argue that foreign aid for sanitation, which has almost always translated into latrine construction projects despite overwhelming evidence that such approaches do not work, has fundamentally distorted the sanitation market to the detriment of the poorest.  

Just ask Palmiera, as foreign aid did not help address her sanitation problem at all.  Her toilet was built, it does not work, and Palmiera is no better off as a result of this investment.  

My wish for World Toilet Day is consequently somewhat different from all the noise that you will hear on this extremely important day.  The noise will focus on raising awareness of the sanitation problem worldwide and pushing people to donate more and more money to eradicate sanitation poverty.  

But sanitation agencies do a disservice to the people they work with around the world like Palmiera if the latrines that actually are built do not work or last.  They do a disservice to American taxpayers and philanthropists when they take money for transformative work that fails to transform.  

And they run the risk of discrediting the entire sanitation movement if World Toilet Day does not demand better work, better results, and more thoughtful programming from those shouting the loudest for more money.  

Conventional sanitation aid needs to be radically overhauled and progress monitored over time.  New philanthropy understands that the problem is not that we do not have enough money for sanitation aid but rather that the money we actually have is so poorly spent.  

Catalytic investments that minimize latrine subsidies and try to create sanitation markets supported by local businesses show great promise without a single dollar of aid being used for latrine construction.  

Initiatives like Community-Led Total Sanitation appear to be scaling in some of the poorest parts of the world with significantly less financial requirements than was once considered just and reasonable because these programs tap into local financial resources for solutions rather than relying on conventional aid.  

And the creative use of local financial institutions and microfinance continue to show an alternative funding model that does not require on-going foreign aid support.

The sanitation sector needs to change its tone, from demanding more money to demanding to be held accountable for better results from communities in developing countries and donors and philanthropists who want their investments to truly solve the global sanitation crisis.  

We need to think differently about the reasons why 2.6 billion people do not have access to sanitation worldwide and have the courage to accept that we, as a sector, have failed far too many people like Palmiera.

World Toilet Day will be a great success if those of us on the frontlines of this sanitation battle commit to a new way of working, with greater transparency and more thoughtfulness, so that the next time Palmiera gets a latrine she has it for life.

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