Entrepreneur Jack Sim put his successful career in Singapore behind him and founded the global non-profit World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001. Sim wanted to improve toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide, using an unconventional approach.
WTO aims to empower individuals through education, training, and building economic opportunities, but it isn’t always easy to get people to talk about human waste. This is why, on a given day, Sim might dress up as the poop emoji, or take a silly selfie on the toilet, to “break the silence” on the sanitation crisis and call for collaborative action.
While Sim has found original ways to spice up sanitation, his job isn’t all fun and games. The same year of WTO’s inception, the organization launched the World Toilet Summit — where academics, government leaders, and UN agencies could come together to promote sanitation policies — and World Toilet Day (Nov. 19), an official UN day that brings attention to sanitation challenges across the world.
Now Sim is promoting the new documentary, Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man, about the ups and downs of advocating for the taboo issues related to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Mr. Toilet premiered in April and has since shown at film festivals from Mexico to Canada. The documentary screened in more cities around the world last month, including at the One World Festival in Bratislava and the Santa Fe Film Festival, and will make its theatrical debut in Los Angeles and New York City in November.
Sim spoke with Global Citizen about the importance of normalizing sanitation conversations, why the World Toilet Summit is being held in São Paolo in 2019, and more.
Global Citizen: What are some of the challenges you face while trying to get people to pay attention to WASH issues?
Sim: It is seen as a “brown” issue and therefore, it has been embarrassing, unspeakable — and so people neglect it, and call it “the water agenda,” which means that they don't mention sanitation. I saw in 2001 that the subject is very seriously neglected. Water at least is getting some traction.
It's called a brown issue because it's brown in color. Funders [and] donors love “green” issues and “blue” issues — water, forest, animals, then children, women, climate change. These are beautiful pictures you can show, but toilets, sanitation, shit, sewage treatment is really uncomfortable.
We found that originally, the neglect was the fact that they [governments] even realize there's no funding. Research and advocacy were all talking only water, and they say when we say water we mean water and sanitation, but who will ever understand if you don't mention sanitation?
Why did you choose comedy as the medium to educate people about WASH?
We have to compete with Kim Kardashian and football. When you're at the bottom of the pile, humor helps a lot. That was our door to make sanitation visible and legitimate.
With our unique blend of serious facts and humor, the media became our big partner. Now every year, every country celebrates World Toilet Day with advocacy and action. I think we are getting to become a normal subject eventually and I'm very happy about that.
Celebrities like Matt Damon came along, and also Bill Gates now invests $200 million in sanitation, reinventing the toilet. Just this week on Netflix, Bill Gates is on Netflix talking about sanitation.
The theory of change is that if we can tell very powerful stories to the media, we will be able to attract all the other stakeholders because the visibility will show them the seriousness of the problems that have accumulated merely because we can’t talk about it.
Whatever we cannot discuss, we cannot improve.
Why is this year’s World Toilet Day theme “Leave No One Behind,” and why is the World Toilet Summit being held in Brazil?
Every single person, of different ages, handicapped, LGBT — they all have to be cared for. Every single person needs a toilet.
This is the first time it is going to South America, and Brazil, being the biggest country, was the obvious choice. Fifty percent of all the sewage in Brazil is not treated and half of the people don't have toilets, don’t have proper sanitation — so they do have some form of a toilet but the sewer is polluting the rivers, the lake, the sea, drains, creating a lot of illness.
And people don't realize that nobody is bringing this to the surface, and making people realize [it] is important.
When we did a press conference and Senate hearing, the petitions immediately came to support and we're so happy because the response was very fast. We hope to go to the Middle East the next year.
What do you want people to know about the importance of water and sanitation?
Water is sanitation, dignity, and health. And if we have both [water and sanitation], this is the root of a tree because, with these two items, you will then be able to go on to do other things like being healthy and productive and earn income and get skills and get a better future. But if you don’t have water and sanitation, I think you can’t go up the quality of life ladder very easily because your child will be sick and you will go down the poverty spiral.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.