Sanitation is politics, politics is sanitation

News Flash! Some foot soldiers belonging to Ghana’s leading political parties have become notoriously popular for their proclivity to seize public toilets.

Reports say the foot soldiers have largely done the seizure, because they feel they have been neglected by their parties on their ascension to power.

They have also seized toilets being managed by opposition parties, to express their grievance and also stake their claim for a part in the national cake.

Indeed, this phenomenon has not only been frowned upon but also made fun of in several quarters, whenever it has happened. Why would people want to seize toilets of all facilities in the world, many would ask.

While that may not have been intended, the answer perhaps lies in a statement made by Jon Lane, Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), at a Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene in Mumbai, India, that “the people who lack sanitation are those with no political voice.”

It does certainly look like they have resorted to toilet seizures in their attempt to find a political voice which has eluded them and may have attained a measure of success, as there have always been reactions to their action.

Although the monetary gains to be made from such facilities in view of the high patronage have always been identified as a major reason for Ghana’s toilet war, many have lost sight of the fact that sanitation cannot be devoid of politics and vice versa – a fact that has not been lost on the foot soldiers engaged in the toilet war.

The issue of the symbiotic relationship that exists between sanitation and politics came up strongly at the just ended first ever Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene held in Mumbai in the Maharashtra state of India.

Political will and commitment is needed to increase sanitation coverage in all countries of the world, so the 2.6 billion currently without access to improved sanitation will get that access – this was the thrust of the six-day conference which attracted about 450 people from 70 countries from October 9 – October 14, 2011.

Summing it all up on the need for political involvement in sanitation at the closing plenary of the conference, Jon Lane, Executive Director, WSSCC, said “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.”

He maintained that messages that were developed during those conferences, such as; “sanitation is important for health”, “sanitation generates economic benefit”, “sanitation contributes to social development”, “sanitation helps the environment”, “sanitation for all is achievable”, are all “powerful political messages based on our own experience.”

“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. 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,” Jon Lane stated.

Accentuating one of WSSCC’s key messages that sanitation generates economic benefits, he said ultimately for all professional concerns about health or the environment, the economic arguments are the most powerful, both with householders themselves and with political leaders.

While admitting there are still some tough problems, he noted that peoples’ access to improved sanitation has to be sustained indefinitely, cautioning however that the sanitation problems of urban slums are growing rapidly.
Emphasising that most of the next three billion people adding to the world’s population will live in urban areas in developing countries, he said “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,” WSSCC’s Executive Director charged participants.

Quoting Nelson Mandela, he told the gathering, “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,” adding, “On that basis, sanitation is one of the most important issues in the world.”


Expressing optimism for the sanitation sector, Jon Lane adduced that although historically, sanitation and hygiene have been neglected and underfunded topics characterised by inconsistent approaches, policies, fragmentation and unclear responsibilities, this has started to change in recent years.

He listed some of the positives in sanitation as the formal recognition by the United Nations of  access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, engagement of more organisations in sanitation and hygiene, start of new networks and initiatives and the understanding of media and political decision-makers of the huge benefits of improved sanitation.

“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,” he stressed.

Mr. Jon Lane encouraged the stakeholders not be disheartened that sanitation for all will take 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,” he said:

Suggesting four key ways to accomplish that feat, he mentioned hard work saying there is no substitute for hard work as well as 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,” he recommended.

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, he added.

Lastly, he impressed on the participants on the need to focus more on growing the ideas and concepts that work than to grow their organisations.

The way forward:

Elucidating on the way forward, Jon Lane said during the next few years, WSSCC’s members and staff will continue to concentrate their energies and resources on sanitation and hygiene; work in long-term development not disaster relief; continue doing much of their work in rural areas, while making specific efforts to become more involved in urban work.

He also divulged that WSSCC will emphasise its commitment to equity for poor and neglected people, ensure that their global, regional and national level work are fully integrated with each other and prioritise those countries that have high sanitation and hygiene needs and in which it can achieve a useful impact.

The WSSCC Executive Director envisaged that all this will lead to four main outcomes.

These, he catalogued as helping millions of people to access and use improved sanitation through the financial support of the Global Sanitation Fund, advocacy, and knowledge sharing and giving special attention to people who are normally left behind: the poor, marginalised and neglected individuals and groups in society.

Also, encourage hundreds more people and organisations to become involved in sanitation and hygiene and help thousands of people to learn new knowledge and skills and hence do their work on sanitation better.

“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,” he stated.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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