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Water & Sanitation

'Triggering' communities in Madagascar to end open defecation once and for all

Michael Sheldrick

In development circles we often talk about empowering people to help themselves. Yet, for all the rhetoric, charity dollars are often spent on Band-Aid solutions that do nothing to really empower people to develop sustainably over the long-term.

Perhaps this explains why I was so inspired by a recent trip to Madagascar. Following a high-level reception with the President, I was given the opportunity to see the impact firsthand of a technique sanitation specialists call “triggering.”

Triggering is essentially the process by which communities that practice open defecation are made aware of the detrimental impact it has on their lives. Put in other words, it is a process that shows people that even if they do not “shit in the open” themselves if the rest of the village defecates openly then everyone will still effectively be eating “each other’s shit.” Triggering thus attempts to bring about that “aha” moment from which communities, once “triggered”, go about addressing the problem themselves to stop the “bad habit” and construct latrines.

During my visit I was first taken to a village that had not yet been triggered, something that was immediately obvious. Even though it had latrines, they were so open – flies being able to go in and out – that really there must have been so little difference between using them and defecating in the open.

Example of makeshift toilet that does not prevent flies from spreading disease.

The contrast with the next village we went to could not have been starker. Triggered only in January, the people told us that once they realized they were literally eating each other’s feces they had to change. As one lady told us, “how can you have dignity when you eat someone’s else shit?” What was so incredible though is that aside from the triggering itself, delivered by local workers, the community had set about addressing the challenge. As they showed me around some of their innovative solutions, I could not help but reflect that this was a community that had been truly empowered to help itself. Without millions of dollars of aid being poured into it, but merely with the support of a very effective public health outreach program, this village is now proudly “open defecation free.”

The below photos highlight some of the changes and innovative solutions I witnessed in the village:

Latrine constructed by Malagasy villagers within 3 days of it being destroyed by a flood.

This was once the village's "open defecation free zone" but has now been put to productive use growing produce.

Example of innovative latrine. The cover keeps flies away from feces and the ash is used to kill germs.

Proud of the latrine they have built themselves.

Walking around the village and seeing food laid out in this way it is easy to imagine how disease can easily spread from open defecation. Since becoming open defecation free, the level of doctor visits and reports of sickness has dramatically fallen.