Poo Wars: Making Light of a Serious Health Problem | 

Wastewater in street (informal settlement near Cape Town), South Africa
Wastewater in street (informal settlement near Cape Town), South Africa

A planned protest regarding the poor sanitation conditions in Cape Town sparked some interest when it was learned that would-be protesters were armed with feces. The South African press dubbed it the ‘poo wars’ and western media ran with it.

The GlobalPost put it in the Weird Wide Web section and the BBC lead with the 180 arrests that resulted from the protests. Steven Grant took exception with the framing of the story. Namely the headline.

What grabbed me was the headline: “Cape Town ‘poo wars’: Mass arrests in Cape Town”. It’s tongue in cheek, a trademark of British media. Is that really okay, though? (Probably not?) Sanitation is a monumental health issue around the world. Should a Western media outlets being poking fun at poor people demanding basic healthy living conditions? (Absolutely not.) It’s not all that hard to draw the direct line between South African poverty, apartheid and the lasting effect of the British colonialism. Is it fair to hold the BBC, of all news outlets, to a higher standard of sensitivity when it comes to places their country has so thoroughly messed up? (Of course it is.)

Sanitation is a serious problem in many parts of the developing world. The protests that took place in South Africa were no joking matter for the people involved. The use of excrement in the protest was to get attention. Not laughs.

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USAID declares water is critical to global development | 

After fifty years in the game, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled its first ever water and development strategy.

Some say it’s about time.

“For many years in development work, water, sanitation and hygiene have been a bit forgotten,”  said Alanna Imbach, media officer with WaterAid America, to the Inter Press Service. ”Instead, significant focus has been placed on education, maternal health and nutrition, overlooking the fact that water and sanitation are foundational building blocks for all of those other elements.”

Though the announcement is appreciated by other NGO leaders, like Water for People CEO Ned Breslin.

“What’s great about this strategy is that it opens up space for creative programming in water development,” said Breslin to IPS. “It’s a huge step forward.”

The five-year water and development strategy is a sign from USAID that it sees water and sanitation as cross-cutting development issues. It is estimated that more than one in ten people (780 million) lack access to safe drinking water. On top of that 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation.

“This new U.S. Water and Development Strategy will help lift poor people around the world out of conflict and poverty.  It is smart, strategic and builds on our past successes using new breakthroughs in science and technology,” said Senator Dick Durbin who joined other members of congress and USAID Administrator Raj Shah for the release. Continue reading

Gates Foundation Funding Goes To Community-Based Sanitation in Vietnam and Cambodia | 

The Gates Foundation recently awarded a $10.9 million grant to the Oakland-based East Meets West (EMW) Foundation to support the NGO’s sanitation and hygiene work in Cambodia and Vietnam.

While the Gates Foundation is well known for supporting technology-based poverty solutions, the programming by EMW is remarkably tech-free. Rather than focus on new innovations and technologies, EMW puts a high emphasis on evidenced-based solutions that have a built in accountability mechanism.

“What stands out is our business model,” said John Anner, President of EMW. “The Gates Foundation gave us this grant because of our results-based mechanism which helps drive down costs of an intervention.”

Sanitation and hygiene are areas where simple interventions can save lives. The WHO estimates that some 2.7 billion people will not have access to basic sanitation by 2015 if current trends persist. That accounts for more than 1 out of every 3 people globally. It is particularly a problem in southern Asia where sanitation coverage is pegged at 36%.

Poor sanitation increases the risk of diarrhea, the leading killer of children under the age of 5. For these reasons EMW has made it a priority to develop programs that improve sanitation. Their community-based program starts with education and ends with the installation of clean latrines.

To do so, EMW must train masons to build the latrines, connect households with financing and provide the right set of incentives for households to pay for a latrine to be built. EMW pays a rebate to families upon the successful completion of the latrine which serves the dual purpose of encouraging people to see the project through and hold all involved accountable. To get the rebate, an independent evaluator must come and inspect the new latrine.

“A lot of the poor have to be risk averse due to the challenges they face. It is not just about the cash incentive. It has to be done right. Meaning it functions right, does not smell and works in the future,” said Anner. He stressed the importance of the latrines working beyond the date of completion.

Vietnam is a country rife with water project failures. To Anner and other water advocates, a part of the problem is attention given to the inauguration of a program. Evidence is an important part of program design, but just as important for ensuring its sustainability.

The most important aspects of sanitation and hygiene are often the least interesting to donors. Anner gave an example, “I have never come across a funder who looks to improve electrical panels for water systems. It is a major failing point of the water sector. ” EMW made it a priority to find solutions to improve the problem of delivering power to the solar panels so that they can cope with voltage changes and are not harmed by flooding.

One way to evaluate programs and gather results that has become popular is the randomized control trial. However, Anner has found that the cost and lack of donor interest to fund the trials as a barrier to using them for EMW. Because of that, they have turned to business case studies as a model for informing both decision makers and donors by providing information about how to apply solutions in the real world.

Ultimately, outputs tied to impact stand above all else for Anner and EMW. “For us output means that the financial transition happens only after the impact happens,” said Anner.  The cholera outbreak that is spreading throughout Freetown, Sierra Leone is an example of how poor sanitation can suddenly wreck havoc on a community. The constant toll runs deeper for Cambodia and Vietnam where poor hygiene and sanitation practices are responsible for an estimated  17,000 deaths and $1.2 billion in economic losses.