Defecate where you donate

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By Susan Davis, Executive Director

On a recent trip, a colleague told a story about visiting a rural community with representatives of a foundation who had funded a water and sanitation project there. He told one of the women who represented the foundation that people in the village they were visiting were not accustomed to using latrines. He said they would respect the visitors from the United States and she should use a latrine in each village. She was horrified and they all laughed.

But why would you fund something you wouldn’t consider using yourself? I wonder what the sanitation sector would look like if donors were required (or felt obligated to) use the facilities that they had funded.

Would you rather use this latrine? (Malawi household latrine with flimsy plastic walls)
Africa 074_2

Or would you rather use something like this? (water flush school toilet at Nicaragua with sturdy walls locking door and sinks for handwashing just outside)

Nicaragua 019

Because of the scale of the problem (billions without toilets) and the relatively scarce resources, most philanthropic efforts (and government solutions) focus on the least expensive options (often some sort of latrine). And the community led total sanitation method that is becoming so popular with governments and non-profits encourages people with very few resources to build their own toilets. If you have ever used a latrine while camping or an outhouse or even a portable toilet at a concert or festival, you know they can be quite unpleasant – dark, smelly, and sometimes dirty.

You might be thinking, “well, cultures are different and people would much rather use a latrine than to have to pee and poop outside.” However, some research in India and Nigeria has found that people aren’t ashamed to defecate outside; they think it is better than using a poor-quality toilet or having a smelly latrine near the house. WaterAid Nigeria found that “a low-quality toilet is an embarrassment for the family.” Instead, “people have a strong desire for an ‘ideal’ water-based toilet”, because it is easily cleaned, connected to modern urban life and aesthetically pleasing. But a water-based toilet is often too expensive, costing between 44 and 77% of an average family’s annual income.

The good news is that some organizations are 1) starting to understand what people really want, and 2) providing solutions like access to small loans, technical advice and services, and shops that provide one-stop shopping for toilet construction materials.

But could things be even better if funders were required to defecate where they donate?

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