Talking Toilets and the Politics of Poo. Musings from AfricaSan3

‘I am the woman standing between you and drinks’.

 I sat up in my chair. We were almost at the end of the opening plenaries at AfricaSan 3 – the third African Conference on Sanitation, being held in Kigali, Rwanda. I, and about 600 others, had been in this room for the best part of five long hours. She continued, ‘and I promise I won’t share with you any statistics or show you a single graph’. Now she had my attention. The final presentation was by Rose George – author of The Big Necessity and, for the past 5 years, journalist about all things sanitation.


 Her presentation addressed how we talk about the sanitation problem – the 2.6 billion people that lack access to a toilet – the 1.1 billion who defecate in the open. But is defecation the right word? Is that too much of a nice way of putting it? Is the word sanitation ‘sanitising’ what is really going on here and taking us away from the heart of the problem? 

 Let’s talk about sh*t.

Not a word I hear at Tearfund but it’s a function we all do and is what the sanitation problem is about. Not dealing with it leads to completely avoidable disease, suffering and death. It is the 21st Century, we can access vast amounts of information on a device small enough to fit in our pocket, and yet around 40% of the world’s population do not have a toilet.

 So how do we convince the public and policymakers alike of the need to urgently address this crisis? Do we need to speak about it more bluntly and if we did, would it get the right level of attention? Would it stimulate political will to address this issue once and for all?

And, importantly, would my mother approve?

 Is anyone interested?

Rose asserted that there is a real interest in this issue – her book has been translated into over 10 languages and she has never had a story about sanitation turned down. But she thinks we need to get better at shouting about this issue. She’s probably right but, let’s not forget that a lot of shouting has already gone on. From June 2009 to July 2010 sanitation and water was the issue DFID received most campaign actions on.

 Could philanthropic heavyweight The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation help with raising the profile of sanitation? They’ve announced their intention to re-invent the toilet. Before your imagination runs wild, let me explain what the plan is. They are investing $41.5 million towards innovative approaches – from latrine design, pit emptying, to the disposal or re-use of waste. As they rightly point out ‘no public health intervention in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health in the world’s wealthy nations’ – and in all fairness to them, it hasn’t really changed much since.

Frank Rijsberman, Director of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Gates Foundation, very patiently answered my bombardment of questions as I quizzed him about demand-driven development, and whether this initiative really gets to the heart of the problem. Their aim is that the new approaches they support, for the moment aimed at urban areas, will go on to stimulate greater demand for better quality, safe and low cost-services in rural areas, which in time they hope to address also.

 Whilst we must remember The Gates Foundation is not the first organisation to look at innovative approaches, they will certainly inject some energy into the sanitation sector. During the week at AfricaSan I heard wide-ranging responses to this initiative – from ‘awful’ to ‘excellent’ and I’m hoping for the latter.

 How important is language?

But we mustn’t lose sight of the complexities involved with sanitation. Take for instance which Ministry takes responsibility for sanitation at a national level. Traditionally it sits under water services, but challenging behaviour, addressing cultural beliefs and building demand require different skill sets from say, drilling a bore hole. Health and education departments also have a vital role to play in sanitation and hygiene promotion and responsibility for sanitation needs to be clearly defined with cross-ministerial coordination.

 Using the right language is important, but this is only one way of trying to break down the taboos associated with sanitation. The word ‘sh*t’ is used by many speakers at sanitation conferences these days which, dare I say, has become a bit trendy in itself. Yet for all the energy and stimulating discussion at the conference, the reality was there were no finance ministers at the conference and few donor representatives who could make strong commitments.

 The challenge remains – the sanitation crisis is avoidable but allowed to prevail.

 And no, my mother would certainly not approve.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s