Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Water & Sanitation

Why we should all have access to "the happiest room in the house"

Raya of Sesame Street and Girish Menon of WaterAid (bottom right) at a World Toilet Summit panel discussion (photo by John Oldfield)

I’m just going to assume you’ve never heard of the World Toilet Summit (hats off to you if you have). While you may envision a conference of toilet salespeople, it’s actually a meeting of key thought and world leaders in New Delhi, India. My good friend, John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, is here to tell you why it’s important to talk about toilets.

Think about it:

When we come out of the bathroom, we are much happier than when we went in (with very few, but notable exceptions). So, according to Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization, the host of last week’s World Toilet Summit in New Delhi, that makes the toilet the "happiest room in the house!"

Hundreds of delegates at the Summit spent two full days vigorously discussing and debating approaches and steps needed to accelerate progress toward the ultimate goal of universal coverage of sanitation in India and across the developing world. Sanitation is the most off-track of the Millennium Development Goals, and stands to gain the most from the world’s commitment to universal coverage by 2030, as espoused in the draft Sustainable Development Goals.

A key theme throughout the Summit was the balancing act between hardware and software. One cannot have too much hardware/infrastructure and not enough software/behavior change, or vice versa. The balance is important, as is the timing between the two; both tracks need to be pursued simultaneously. On this note, the inventor of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) and the Founder of the CLTS Foundation Dr. Kamal Kar told a story about the many times he has seen people around the world talking on their cell phones while defecating in the open, then hopping up and riding away on their motorcycles. Clearly these people are not the poorest of the poor, but have rather made a conscious decision to defecate in the open, manifesting the need for behavior change. But once they do change their behavior, or at least express a willingness to do so, the supply chain for sustainable technical solutions to their sanitation challenges needs to be strong enough to respond quickly and appropriately.

This balancing act between hardware and software promises to be prominent in India over the next five years, and I found the World Toilet Summit in New Delhi particularly well-timed for three reasons:

1) The Government of India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, late last year committed loudly and publicly to universal coverage of sanitation in India by October 2, 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. To succeed, this Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) will need to solve the problem of 600 million Indians who continue to defecate in the open, and do so in an appropriate, sustainable fashion.

2) The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have recently partnered with the Government of India on capacity-building for sanitation in urban areas across India.

3) And last but not least, sanitation was a key component of the late 2014 summit between U.S. President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Modi, and is likely on the table during President Obama’s current visit to India as the Chief Guest of Prime Minister Modi as India celebrates its Republic Day (January 26, 2015).

So considering the success (and excellent timing) of the recent World Toilet Summit in New Delhi, and the warm relationship between the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies, how about we throw a Global Block Party for Swachh Bharat, just as whole neighborhoods come together to clean up a river on a sunny weekend day: let's all pitch in and help India end open defecation and achieve universal coverage of sanitation by October 2, 2019, and wish Mahatma Gandhi a Happy 150th Birthday. How about a Global Friends of Swachh Bharat to provide additional financial and technical inputs to the Government of India’s already impressive commitment? It won't be easy, but with every single Indian involved, per the suggestion of Prime Minister Modi, and working together with many of us from abroad (perhaps a big push from the Indian diaspora), it is possible. India has killed polio; it's ready to move on sanitation now.

- John Oldfield, CEO WASH Advocates

You heard the man. It’s time to make sure everyone has access to a “happy room.”


Judith Rowland