Is the debate on sending soap to Africa missing the point?Posted: June 24, 2011
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.