The defecation calculation and talking shit

I spent the end of last week at a workshop organised by WaterAid and its partner organisations in Mali (a mix of local NGOs and local government technical units) to discuss the progress in piloting Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) in their regions. CLTS is an approach to promoting hygienic sanitation practices which emerged in Bangladesh in 1999 and has since spread rapidly. CLTS relies on a mix of shaming, inspiring and supporting communities to abandon open defecation and construct their own latrines, rather than the previous common – and often unsuccessful – approach of subsidising toilets.

The facilitation process is supposed to use the crude local equivalent word for ‘shit’ in a variety of participatory exercises which provoke collective realisation in communities of their consequences of their shitting habits, and a commitment to group action to address them. One example is the calcul de cacas (‘the defecation calculation’ would be the elegant English translation). This involves the community calculating the mass of faeces they produce individually and collectively per day, week or year, and then thinking about where this goes. If open defecation is practised, this could be water sources, children’s hands, flies’ legs – and ultimately people’s mouths and stomachs.

Some of the key findings from WaterAid’s pilot studies in 12 villages in Mali so far:

• In villages which lacked sufficient latrines and where people practised open defecation, the process stimulated enough construction for almost all households to have a toilet. In most cases, these were ‘traditional’ Malian pit latrines with the slab covering the pit made of wood and dried mud. This is similar to previous CLTS initiatives in other countries where the first step is getting on the ‘sanitation ladder’ with traditional latrines, and hoping that people later upgrade to more hygienic options (for example, with concrete slabs which are easier to clean).

• In some villages, where open defecation was less of a problem, the CLTS approach helped make this second step: the total number of latrines in the villages did not change much, but owners upgraded from wood and mud to concrete latrine slabs made by trained masons in the villages.

• Although the participatory methods of CLTS may work with people, animal shit is still a problem. In some evaluations, people joked that “We have to keep the animals in our courtyard so they are close to the house, otherwise [insert name of rival ethnic group according to Mali’s system of kinship joking] would steal them!”

One of my key interests is the link between the CLTS approach to stimulating better sanitation practices, and other hygiene promotion initiatives that have encouraged people to upgrade and protect their own wells to improve the quality of water available – I should be beginning some field visits on this soon.

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4 Comments on “The defecation calculation and talking shit”

  1. Helen says:

    I’m intrigued about the use of CLTS to promote the upgrade to concrete latrine slabs. Does this work on the same basis as ‘shaming’ community members, making people realise how unhygienic just wooden slabs can be? Would wateraid also consider going back to communities who have constructed wooden latrines this time round to encourage them to upgrade later on?

    • The use of the concepts from CLTS in this case seemed to be somewhere between CLTS and sanitation marketing: the idea of peer pressure to encourage everyone in a community to take action themselves, while making sure there are trained masons present with access to materials to make the latrine slabs for people to buy. For communities that are at the previous stage (moving from open defecation to traditional latrines), facilitators from WaterAid’s partners still visit the villages, and this includes promoting upgrading to concrete slabs over time. CLTS is seen as the first step in the process.

  2. ann says:

    I wondered how people dealt with this in the Middle Ages and how long it took them to regress from the upmarket Roman toilets that preceded them.

  3. […] as any idea in development, is context-dependent. I’ve already discussed how WaterAid’s partners in Mali have started adapting the approach. A wider WaterAid report on the social-cultural barriers to total sanitation in Mali and three […]


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