Is the debate on sending soap to Africa missing the point?

The Global Soap Project – reprocessing unwanted soap from American hotels and sending the new bars for free distribution in Africa – has been in the news recently thanks to recognition of its founder Derreck Kayongo as a “CNN Hero”. But the project has also received criticism from Scott Gilmore and Dean Karlan that this is yet another example of “SWEDOW”: sending unwanted Western goods as in-kind donations to poor countries, without paying sufficient attention to if they are really needed, if this is the most cost-effective way of providing the goods, or if there could be unintended consequences such as damage to local businesses trying to supply the same products.

Encouragingly, representatives of the Global Soap Project have shown willingness to engage with the criticism, and are promising more evidence on their website soon to demonstrate why they think their business model is the most cost-effective way of ensuring poor people have access to soap – this will put everyone in a better position to debate the actual figures involved.

However, this debate about SWEDOW seems to skip over the wider point: even if people have soap, they don’t often wash their hands when they should (Karlan alludes to this as an aside at the end of his article). The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap puts it simply:

Low rates of handwashing are rarely caused by a lack of soap. Soap is present in the vast majority of households worldwide, but it is commonly used for bathing and laundry, not for handwashing … In studies around the world, one major reason for low rates of handwashing with soap is that this is simply not a habit.

The challenge remains: make handwashing with soap a worldwide habit and social norm.

As part of its soap distribution, the Global Soap Project says that it works with partners to “educate recipients on the best way to use it for health and sanitation purposes”. But even if this reprocessing and distribution system turns out to be the most cost-effective method of enabling poor people to have immediate access to soap (and doesn’t do longer-term damage to local markets), we need to understand and question where free handouts fit into making handwashing with soap a consistent long-term practice.

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Sustainability of rural water services: what next for WaterAid in Mali?

Time for some reflections on the WaterAid West Africa workshop on the sustainability of rural water services I attended recently. On the last day of the meeting, each country’s team presented the key points to take forward in their work. This is what the summary of the ideas for WaterAid in Mali looked like:

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Community-led total sanitation (CLTS): the backlash

Some fascinating observations from Liz Chatterjee on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog after a visit to Karnataka to review local implementation of India’s national Total Sanitation Campaign:

“Best practice” turned out to be slightly alarming. The toilets had indeed been constructed, local officials had made superhuman efforts, and people of all classes and castes were using the facilities regularly. But we weren’t prepared for the degree of (often community-backed) coercion used to get the job done.

… At its mildest, this meant squads of teachers and youths, who patrolled the fields and blew whistles when they spotted people defecating. Schoolchildren whose families did not have toilets were humiliated in the classroom. Men followed women – and vice versa – all day, denying people the opportunity even to urinate.

… Equally common, though, were more questionable tactics. Squads threw stones at people defecating. Women were photographed and their pictures displayed publicly. The local government institution, the gram panchayat, threatened to cut off households’ water and electricity supplies until their owners had signed contracts promising to build latrines.

This is in response to a recent article by Robert Chambers arguing for the potential of community-led total sanitation (CLTS) to help achieve the (way off-track) MDG for sanitation.

There are excellent reader comments under both articles, including thoughtful contributions from some of those engaged in this work on the ground. The key points:

  • CLTS is not a magic bullet. In particular, it seems to have been successful so far in persuading many communities in different countries to abandon open defecation and construct latrines, but moving further up the ‘sanitation ladder’ and permanently adopting good hygiene practices such as handwashing with soap may be bigger challenges.
  • CLTS is a community-level approach; scaling-up and working out where it fits into wider public health policy is a more difficult question. Chambers and the CLTS advocates highlight some of these key obstacles, including existing vested interests in hardware-subsidy projects, and the pressure for target-driven construction programmes. Commenters on Chatterjee’s article argue that her observations illustrate exactly this point – many of the problems she saw arise from the reward-based system of targets employed by India’s rural Total Sanitation Campaign rather than the concept of CLTS itself.
  • CLTS, 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 other West African countries highlights some of the context-specific issues to consider – this type of analysis and adaptation is crucial anywhere.