Admitting failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation?

Here is Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, standing naked next to a handpump in Uganda (safe for work thanks to two strategically placed jerrycans). Why? To illustrate the “naked truth”: this project is going to fail, because the long-term financing needed is not in place.

This is part of recent moves in aid towards “admitting failure”, and I’m going to take it as a starting point for discussing what this idea means for the WASH sector, as part of the Second Aid Blog Forum organised by Tales from the Hood.

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“Reinventing the toilet”: a justification?

The Gates Foundation’s recent announcement that it wanted to “reinvent the toilet” was understandably met with cautious scepticism by some in the sector. But the text is now online of a more detailed speech where the head of the WASH program at the Foundation, Frank Rijsberman, tries to satisfy us “hardcore water and sanitation enthusiasts”.

The whole speech is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights and comments:

The only form of sanitation that we are really interested in is on-site sanitation, i.e., sanitation that is not connected to sewers. It is a wonderful ambition to provide entire populations with gold-standard flush toilets connected to sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. Indeed, this still appears to be official policy in many places. But it is not the form of sanitation that serves the people we aim to serve…

That does not mean, however, that we think that poor people, who can’t afford the flush toilets that you and I use, have to be satisfied with the outhouses that we happily left behind us sometime in the last century…. Wouldn’t you rather have a toilet in your house that directly recovers the energy, nutrients, and water that we currently throw away? Wouldn’t you like a toilet that helps you recycle waste in the same way that we now recycle paper, glass, and plastic? I bet you would. So, yes, we think that the toilet should be reinvented.

Well, maybe some people would. But we know already that cultural attitudes to shit (and what to do with it) differ widely according to time and place and have a big influence on what types of toilets people use (or don’t). The ambition here is to use the technology to change people’s desires – “toilets that everyone will aspire to have”. Rijsberman makes the now-common comparison between the number of mobile phones and toilets in Africa and extends the analogy to iPads and Kindles, things we didn’t know we wanted until we saw them. It’s certainly ambitious, and I’m fascinated to see how the different grantees for the toilet-reinvention challenge try to adapt and pitch the different ideas in different contexts.

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