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.


7 Comments on “Is the debate on sending soap to Africa missing the point?”

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    Nice post Stephen. I would argue that what you are saying is in fact at the heart of the SWEDOW argument. Spending resources on foreign sourced or free goods takes away from time spent supporting changes such as improved sanitation or something as simple as encouraging people to wash their hands.

    J, who coined the term, explains it best saying,

    “GIK cannot (or should not) drive program design. Programs need to be designed based on evidence gathered through assessments, surveys and the like. The data – that evidence – then tells you what is change is needed and, by extension, what kinds of stuff are needed.

    Do your assessment. Understand the needs. Plan an appropriate response. The need for GIK is driven by what’s needed to implement the planned response. Not the other way around.

    Defining field needs in terms of the GIK on offer is bad aid, straight up. Don’t do it.”

    I think the two of you are largely in agreement.

    Here is the original for reference:

  2. philmader says:

    Hi Stephen, too bad no new posts in a while… anyway when I was reading this I couldn’t help but think of my own experiences in watsan in India, where I also see elements of SWEDOW. In microcredit being used as a tool for sanitation expansion, the driver is the availability of microcredit. There is something like an entire movement trying to find new things microcredit can be applied to; regardless of whether it is the most appropriate means or not. But the industry is awash with money, I should perhaps not be surprised. However, it makes you wonder if the priorities are right when you see a household constructing a latrine with 50% loan funds and a 50% grant, only to use it as a storage cupboard. This wasn’t always the case, but you can see that the education element was abysmally underemphasised.

  3. Does anyone in the world need free soap?
    Is it just a scam to make money through a charitable organization?

  4. Alana says:

    In WASHCost Mozambique, we found that households are spending up to 5% of their cash-income on soap. This is equivalent to an average of US$ 12 per capita per year, more than the per capita expenditure on hygiene promotion interventions.

    In Ghana, the median per capita expenditure on soap is US $ 17 per capita per year (N = 1060). more than the (annualised) per capita cost of US$ 10-14 a year for a small town water system.

    • Thanks Alana – really interesting figures. I know the WASHCost analysis is ongoing but I wonder what correlation there is (or is not) between amount spent on soap and actual handwashing practices at the key moments? If the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap is correct and most soap is used for bathing and laundry then we could have the unwanted result that people are spending relatively very high amounts on soap yet still not achieving good hygiene practices.

  5. Neil says:

    At least the chap is getting involved, suppose its better than discussion, analyzing and debate

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