Why Efforts at a Better Toilet Have Been in the Shitter

For decades, well-intentioned engineers have gone about trying to fix the world’s problems with better products. Take for instance stoves, an essential cooking tool for the third world. Throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the native and impoverished rely on traditional techniques to get their food ready to serve. Unfortunately, despite the relatively inexpensive and demonstrably healthier (both for the user and the environment) stovetops, people don’t value them enough to merit the cost.

People respond to toilets in much the same way, as the Gates Foundation is now finding.

“A very poor person, wherever they are in the world, lives in a cash economy. They need enough money to buy food, buy clothes, pay for health care. They’re making just enough money to survive,” said Martin Fisher, co-founder of KickStart, a nonprofit that develops sustainable technologies for developing-world use.

“The main argument around sanitation is that it’s going to make you healthier,” continued Fisher. But from an adopter’s perspective, “You’re telling me that if I defecate in the open, I’ll be unhealthy — but I’ve been doing it my whole life. Everyone I know has been doing it. Unless I believe in all this mumbo-jumbo you’re telling me about what makes me healthier, I’m not going to prioritize it.”

Apart from making the new toilets as inexpensive as possible, said Fisher, the key is making them a social norm and object of aspiration, and making pit latrines and in-the-open defecation an object of community opprobrium.

“With a lot of these social enterprises and designs, the problem isn’t that we should have designed it better. It’s that we haven’t designed around the problems of convincing people to change their behavior,” Fisher said. “That’s where we need the innovation.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world, aims to meet those challenges. A revolution in third world sanitation—which could save millions of lives—starts first with the culture of using sanitation. And the way to the answer, if not the answer, is slowly emerging: proper sanitation is a community problem, so it will need a community solution.

It comes down to game theory: when I (hypothetically) defecate in the open, there is almost no immediate cost to myself, assuming that’s the cultural norm—remember, this is the third world. But the negative externalities of leaving my waste untreated adds up, and effects the community. Knowing this, I (hypothetically) would want as many people as possible using proper sanitation methods, e.g. well-designed toilets, while myself continuing to avoid the costs of paying for a toilet, sanitation, water.

Sociologists, engineers, and philanthropists are working together to tackle that last problem. For as long as individuals only operate on their own best interests, the community as a whole loses. So the key lies in not toilet engineering but social engineering, if the Gates Foundation is going to effect change. Convince the third-world individual to see things from a community perspective and appreciate the long-term consequences of pooping willy-nilly, and they have tackled their biggest obstacle. Without this social engineering, no other engineering will matter.



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