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Editor's Note: This article written by Luca Powell was originally published on GlobalCitizen.org, 17 November 2016.
“Imagine a world where poverty doesn’t exist.”
That was how wide Amina J. Mohammed cast her hopeful net when she spoke this year at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City's Central Park. And that might make sense if you knew her: Mohammed, a Nigerian activist, is a passionate optimist for global progress.
Most recently she’s become well-known as an architect of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a roadmap that the UN will use to end world poverty by 2030. Of those 17, she’s championed goal number six, “Clean Water and Sanitation”, a frequently under-acknowledged benchmark for progress.
“There are so many other pressing needs for the attention of governments: food supply, education, medical treatment and dealing with war and conflict,” details a 2016 report by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). As a result, sanitation ranks low on most governments list of priorities.
But when it comes to unpacking poverty, Mohammed’s thinking is clear. The WSSCC, which she chairs, indirectly targets all the SDG’s through a specific focus on sanitary health, which has been a problem for countries like India and Nigeria.
“By improving sanitation, we can improve health outcomes, keep more kids in school, empower women, improve public spaces in urban areas, and further climate change adaptation,” she told Global Citizen via e-mail.
Which is why Mohammed, who is also Nigeria’s Minister for the Environment, prioritizes what is a pressing problem in developing countries.
Take India, where the WSSCC found that 64% of citizens worry about hygiene related illness either “all the time” or “often”. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “My Clean India” campaign, a nationwide call to action. “We must all come together and do this, wherever we are,” said Modi on the day of its announcement. “This is a people’s task.”
Like India, a disproportionate number of Nigerians — over 110 million — have little or no access to improved sanitation. And overall, the two countries face similar challenges in large rural populations, little education about the consequences of poor hygiene, and cultural taboos which limit the success of women and girls where access to menstrual hygiene is unavailable.
So when Modi announced his objective to end open-defecation by 2025, Mohammed followed suit on behalf of her home country.
And she’s pushing a similar message of collective responsibility, which she considers the most effective approach to ending open defecation. The approach, known as community-led total sanitation (CLTS), has become the de facto approach of many NGOs and international organizations, says Mohammed.
Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, stands as proof of CLTS’ success.
“It is easy to assume that only the well-off in society can have have access to adequate sanitation, however the evidence suggests otherwise. Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, has the lowest rate of open defecation, only 3 percent!” she said.
So it’s the behavioral change that really matters, explains Mohammed, who believes that progress toward SDG number six isn’t solely dependent upon infrastructure spending.
“Whereas before the focus was on toilet construction, the priority now is a call to action for all Indians to change their hygiene behaviours and end the practice of open defecation,” she said.
On the state-by-state level at which sanitation is managed in India, that call to action will look different depending on the economy, politics and identity of a region. Though it may be a challenge for the country, Amina thinks that India’s diversity will be a boon to sanitation efforts worldwide.
“The wealth of variation among the states of India, and the differing responses of collective behaviour change, will be a great source of learning for other countries around the world, including Nigeria," she said.
As 2025 approaches, India’s campaign against open defecation will be instructive for Mohammed’s own efforts. That will be helpful, she notes, because there’s no one-size fits all solution to improving global sanitation — a challenge made easier the more successful models there are to draw from.
Those models will help Amina to target solutions for groups that have become socially marginalized by poor sanitation, such as women and girls, the disabled, the elderly, and transgender persons.
“How many toilets actually have menstrual hygiene facilities and a means of safe disposal? How many girls fear going to school because their school latrines lack such facilities? And even if there are such facilities, are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters willing to 'break the taboo' and talk with their daughter about menstruation, and ensure they go to school?” she said.
They are just some of the questions guiding Mohammed as she turns towards her 2025 objective for her home country, an objective she is taking seriously.
“Ultimately, it's about restoring dignity in one's life,” she said.