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.


Attribution

Wired


Commentary Ticker

  • Data Knows Best: Greatest TV Shows Get Ranked and Graphed
    March 26, 2014 | 10:50 am

    Every argument is better with charts and graphs. Sometimes a little linear regression can provide more insight than a long-winded report. GraphTV tests that theory by plotting the ratings of popular television shows. It all started with Breaking Bad. Data guru Kevin Wu was watching its fifth and final season and couldn’t help but think [...]

  • A Coin-Inspired National Spirit, Hopefully
    March 20, 2014 | 11:56 am

    The Lakota Nation, a group of seven Native American bands in North and South Dakota, voted to make a Bitcoin-like crypto-currency called MazaCoin their official currency, according to Forbes. Programmer and Lakota activist Payu Harris believes that the coin will help the Lakota people gain sovereignty over their land. “To be a truly independent state [...]

  • Smartguns and the Promise of Progress
    March 3, 2014 | 9:50 am

    With the recent Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (and the 44 school shootings since) still relatively fresh in our collective minds, and with Congress empirically unable to do anything to stop gun violence at all, it seems slowing, if not stopping, the gun violence epidemic has fallen on a strange coalition of gun manufacturers, Silicon [...]

  • Watch: Movies Without Imaginary Friends
    January 28, 2014 | 12:56 pm

    If you seriously haven’t watched Fight Club yet (or read the book by Chuck Palahniuk) stop and go do that right now. You’re fifteen years late to the craziest party. Okay, you’ve watched it now? Onwards. A visual effects specialist in New York accelerated himself to Internet fame in mid-January when he edited Tyler Durden [...]

  • The Racism of “Racism”: The Complicated Origins of the Term
    January 17, 2014 | 12:27 pm

    “Racism,” like race, was invented. The term “racism” has done a lot of heavy lifting for anti-racism advocates, helping to frame anyone discriminating by race as misguided. Just as with classism or sexism, not only does the word racism give name to an evil, it helps to create the thing as evil in the first [...]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!



Trending on The Airspace