Sunday, August 12, 2007

I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pay to take a piss

Direct quote from a tourist during a recent trip to Paris: “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pay half a euro to take a piss. I’m going to McDonald’s!”

So people have a difficult time paying to go to the bathroom in France. Not exactly a newsflash, and I think the same will be said once public toilets start becoming more prevalent in NYC. Tourists will still whistle nonchalantly through hotel lobbies to get away with doing their business for free.

In several woredas (districts) in Ethiopia, however, it’s now the hip thing to not only have your own pit latrine by your home, but to pay for the privilege. How did this happen, and in Ethiopia of all places, where the per capita GDP is $US1,000, and where only 6% (sic) of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities? What’s the secret?

Trachoma is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, and is caused by a lack of safe water and inadequate sanitation facilities. Transmission of trachoma can be decreased significantly by using improved sanitation facilities like pit latrines. The Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program, in cooperation with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, launched a program in 2002 to catalyze the building of 10,000 pit latrines to stem trachoma. If there is one global public health story over the past few years that deserves to be above the fold in every mainstream periodical, it is this one:

Pit Latrines for All Households: The experience of Hulet Eju Enessie Woreda, Amhara National Regional State, Northwest Ethiopia

The full report (in Amharic) is a bit of a read. The gist of this executive summary (in English) is this:

  • 89,000 pit latrines were built (the actual number is now 225,000)
  • Ethiopians have for the most part done this themselves
  • Most households paid nothing for their latrines; of those who paid anything, the median amount was USD$2.80.
  • The secret to success was not throwing money at the problem, or pushing some inappropriate top-down technology or infrastructure.

The secret to success is what the Carter Center calls "community mobilization, the presence of a strong political commitment among local leaders, and integration into the pre-existing community structures and practices." The latin taxonomic name for that is “Ethiopicae grandmae,” less technically “Ethiopian grandmothers,” or “informal village leaders.”

Pit latrines do not sell themselves in most cases, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas where the need to find an unspoiled place to leave a #2 is less urgent because there is simply more real estate. Latrines are frequently expensive to build and maintain, even if the local demand exists. It is often very difficult even to create that demand though, particularly in more rural communities, and difficult to ensure that those latrines are used for their intended purposes, not as homes or as cow-dung storage sheds.

This particular Carter Center program did not have the resources to build latrines themselves, but only to do the community mobilization and training. I spent several years in the late 1990s working for USAID and U.S. Department of State contractors on democracy and governance initiatives throughout Africa. Not infrequently I found that the fewer financial resources we had available for a project, the more successful it turned out to be. This was because less money led to non-financial commitment(s) being provided by local leaders, and by women’s groups in particular. Once those local commitments were made available, the sustainability of our work increased dramatically.

This Carter Center report indicates similar results from a similar approach. If Patty Stonesifer would come to me today with the “How would you spend $5b” question, my answer would be “Scale the sanitation work of both the Carter Center and Sulabh International by customizing their approaches for every country/community in the world, and blow the sanitation MDG out of the water.”

It is not cost-effective to vaccinate a newborn against polio or mumps if that child will die at three years old from a preventable waterborne disease like diarrhea or malaria or be forced into a life of leading a trachoma-blinded adult around for the rest of his/her life.

Using a pit latrine is freedom, comfort, and honour!” — Villager from Hulet Eju Enessie Woreda

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