Speech by Jon Lane, Executive Director, at the end of the Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene

Date: 14th October 2011

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Speech by Jon Lane, Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaboration Council, in the closing plenary of the Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene (visit website for other content from the Forum)

Mumbai, 13 October 2011

Chair, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

That great moral beacon of our times, Nelson Mandela, invites us to judge the importance of an issue not by how glamorous or attractive it is but by how much good it does for how many people. On that basis, sanitation is one of the most important issues in the world. As our Forum draws to a close, I would like to share with you some observations about the subject and some thoughts for the future.

This is an exciting time to be working in sanitation. Historically, sanitation and hygiene have been neglected and underfunded topics characterized by inconsistent approaches and policies, fragmentation and unclear responsibilities. In recent years this has started to change: the United Nations have formally recognized  access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, more organizations have become engaged in sanitation and hygiene, and new networks and initiatives have started. Media and political decision-makers are beginning to understand the huge benefits of improved sanitation. 

Political leaders have recognized that sanitation is different from water in aims, timescales and skills needed, and in country after country we see a specified Ministry responsible for sanitation with a sanitation and hygiene policy and budget.

Decision-makers have realized that centralized waterborne sewerage is economically and environmentally untenable for the vast majority of people around the world. So sanitation policy nowadays acknowledges on-site sanitation as most viable for rural areas and even for low-density urban populations. 

Until recently, most sanitation policies – if they existed at all – were based on subsidizing the cost of latrines or toilets, i.e. building toilets for people whether they wanted them or not. Across the developing world about half of those toilets are used for their intended purpose, while half serve as store rooms for food, bicycles and other valued possessions. So now many countries’ and agencies’ policies have moved on to emphasise hygiene promotion and demand creation. 

I am proud that WSSCC has played an active role in all of these changes .Many programmes, including WSSCC’s Global Sanitation Fund, are spending their money on persuading people to raise sanitation up their own priority lists using Community-Led Total Sanitation and similar concepts. Then those people automatically want to improve their own sanitation service – for which the local entrepreneurs and service providers must be ready. People no longer have to struggle on, digging their own pits and trying to work out what to do when they are full. Human shit (properly composted) is being recognized as an economic commodity not a waste product. People in some cultures have recognized this for centuries, and now the rest of us are catching up.

The International Year of Sanitation in 2008 succeeded in raising the political profile of the subject. Global meetings, regional sanitation conferences, numerous campaigns and events at national and local level all contributed to this political momentum.

How did we, the sanitation people, do this? I believe that the key was to stop arguing among ourselves about the technicalities of sanitation (my toilet design is better than yours…) and instead unite around a small number of simple clear messages. We spoke to the rest of the world with a unified voice: sanitation is important for health, sanitation generates economic benefit, sanitation contributes to social development, sanitation helps the environment, sanitation for all is achievable. These are powerful political messages based on our own experience.

Now we need to maintain sanitation’s place amid the clamour of other topics. We are emphasizing one of our key messages in particular, namely that sanitation generates economic benefits. Ultimately, for all our professional concerns about health or the environment, the economic arguments are the most powerful both with householders themselves and with political leaders.

Let us remember that politicians fundamentally want to serve their people. They have conflicting pressures and must make tough decisions, often from limited information. Politicians make new policies if they are convinced  by the arguments of people advocating for them. That calls for hard evidence to back up arguments, plus sustained political-level presence. Our work on sanitation needs to take these factors into account.

Looking to the future, I believe the major factors affecting progress on sanitation will include: demographic changes including increased urbanization; the global economic downturn; environmental issues including climate change and natural disasters;  changing political priorities; technological developments including advances in information technology; a global economic and political power shift towards South and East Asia. All of these factors present us both problems and opportunities. 

Of course water will become more prominent in political debate around the world. Our task is to ensure that sanitation also does. We are making progress but there is a long way to go until sanitation becomes as prominent as, say, vaccination: our colleagues at the GAVI Alliance recently did a great job to request finance of $3 billion and receive $4 billion. That is the sort of scale we should aim for.

We are starting to look beyond the MDG target to a future target which must be accessible, safe, affordable sanitation for all – this universal goal ties in well with the recently-declared human right to sanitation, and with the concepts of equity and inclusion applied to sanitation.

There are still some tough problems, for example that the people who lack sanitation are those with no political voice, that peoples’ access to improved sanitation has to be sustained indefinitely, and that the sanitation problems of urban slums are growing rapidly. (Most of the next three billion people adding to the world’s population will live in urban areas in developing countries.) Some people seek technical solutions for these problems, while I believe we should be spending more energy on finding political and social solutions. We need to work harder to persuade others – politicians, the media, thought leaders – that sanitation is important to them. It is no use just talking among ourselves as sanitation professionals.

We should not be disheartened that it takes time – the world’s first civil society movement, the campaign to abolish the slave trade, took decades to achieve its objective. I know we have a big task ahead of us to achieve sanitation for everybody. But I believe we can do it, and this is how. I have four points:

First, hard work. Doing sanitation well is difficult, combining social sciences, political, institutional and technical work. It is slow steady work, house by house, community by community. There is no substitute for hard work.

Secondly, plain speaking. We must speak out about the subject using plain language that everybody can understand. This will bring sanitation and toilets and shit into regular professional and policy dialogue.

Thirdly, strong leadership: from Mahatma Gandhi in 1925 saying that sanitation is more important than independence to the UN Secretary-General this year saying “It is time to put sanitation and access to proper toilets at the centre of our development discussions” we need strong direction from global leaders.

Fourthly, thinking big. We have talked a lot about working at scale. I suggest that we should be thinking at the scale of 2.5 billion people. To do this, it is more important to grow the ideas and concepts that work than to grow our organizations. Great ideas spread like viruses, so we want this virus to become a pandemic.

Within that overall view forward, WSSCC has studied its own characteristics and those of other organizations working on water, sanitation and hygiene and its relationships with them. There are a number of fine organizations that have goals which are similar to WSSCC. The whole point of WSSCC’s work is to collaborate, not compete, with these and other comparable organizations. WSSCC sees itself as one player in collective global leadership on sanitation. Within that context, it has a clear niche as the global membership organization specializing in sanitation and hygiene for poor people.

During the next few years, WSSCC’s members and staff will continue to concentrate our energies and resources on sanitation and hygiene; we will work in long-term development not disaster relief; we will continue doing much of our work in rural areas while making specific efforts to become more involved in urban work; we will emphasize our commitment to equity for poor and neglected people; and we will ensure that our global, regional and national level work are fully integrated with each other. WSSCC will prioritize those countries that have high sanitation and hygiene needs and in which it can achieve a useful impact. All this will lead to four main outcomes:

•Through the financial support of the Global Sanitation Fund, our advocacy, and our knowledge sharing, we will help millions of people to access and use improved sanitation. 

•We will give special attention to people who are normally left behind: the poor, marginalized and neglected individuals and groups in society. 

•We will encourage hundreds more people and organizations to become involved in sanitation and hygiene. 

•We will help thousands of people to learn new knowledge and skills and hence do their work on sanitation better. 

These are the main features of our work that we have described in our new Medium-Term Strategic Plan that was approved by our Steering Committee here on Sunday and is being shared with all of you today. If you are a member, please use that document to guide your work. If you are not a member, please use it to know us and our work – and please join us.

We have all had a busy week. Our work here is part of our mission to transform sanitation from a minor, neglected, charitable development sector into a major, thriving area of human economic activity. This transformation is happening because people understand that sanitation improves their health, generates economic benefit, and contributes to their social development. Their understanding is due to the hard work done by sanitation and hygiene professionals, including you.

We all have a role to play. NGO workers, ministers, academics, civil servants, media professionals, donors, young people, the business community – all of us are leaders in this great movement on sanitation. 

Each of you are here because you want to end open defecation; because you want to achieve sanitation and water for all, because you want to make the world a wealthier, healthier and cleaner place for your children and grandchildren.

I respect your commitments and your achievements. I urge you to continue your good work in sanitation and hygiene. As we toil, we can all have the satisfaction of knowing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. 

With Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela on our side, there can be no nobler cause.

Thank you.

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