Conquer the world with new underwear

July 9, 2013 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

By Anoop Jain, MPH

I am about to give you a set of instructions. I need you to follow them very carefully.

Go immediately to your bathroom. Dismantle your toilet. Every last bit of it. You can donate the spare porcelain to NASA for all I care. Maybe they can use it to build a space ship that will take us to Mars.

Finished? Good. Now, defecate. Into a bag. If you have a few extra pennies lying around, I’ll grant you permission to purchase a small bucket that you can place the bag into, just so that you don’t have to balance squatting with holding a bag under your bottom. But do remember, the bucket is a luxury.

OK. Now take the bag and walk with it down the street. I promise someone will be waiting there for you. They are going pay you $.10 for your troubles. Sound good? Good!

There is no iteration of this universe that exists in which you do not have a toilet. That is a fact. And there really doesn’t need to be. Because there are already plenty of people (over 1 billion, in fact) that don’t. These people are forced to defecate outside. This causes the spread of diseases such as diarrhea. Diarrhea kills over 2 million children under 5 annually, more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB combined. In India alone, this disease causes lost productivity, amounting to almost $10 billion in economic losses. This is a tremendous burden, especially in some parts of India where the average yearly income is less than $400. And finally, in rural India, where 5 out of 6 schools do not have a bathroom for girls, girls drop out because when they reach puberty, they have no place to change their sanitary pads.

So why the bag? What does that have to do with anything? Well, what if I told you that in the slums of Nairobi, biodegradable bags are sold to residents who live without toilets. They are expected to defecate in the bags, and return them to centralized collection points. Now the same individuals responsible for this “innovation” are being heralded as saviors.

I don’t ascribe any value to the notion that something is better than nothing. Especially when it comes to attempts at restoring people’s dignity. What I do appreciate, however, is acknowledgement that people’s needs ought to be fundamentally met, in the same way we (benefactors) would expect them to be, if we were in the similar situation as them (beneficiaries). This requires patience and understanding. It also means sacrificing the applause that is so commonly given these days, for inventing the next best thing.

The issue of inadequate sanitation persists as one of the world’s greatest development challenges. Yet, rather than finding ways to urge local governments and leaders to install toilets (because guess what, they work!), or at least looking for ways in which they can be implemented, we are looking for quick solutions that are nothing more than gimmicks. Our beneficiaries should not be our lab rats for our mad scientist tendencies. Those who are defecating outside today, need our help now. Not a week from now, after the patents have been filed and after the awards for world’s greatest innovator have been handed out. Let us be driven by an urgency to work with communities, politicians, and funders, to affect change that we would feel comfortable having our children use. Anything less than that would be an injustice.

Anoop Jain completed his MPH, with a concentration in MCH, in May 2013. He is now working in Bihar, India, with his organization Humanure Power, through a Fellowship from Echoing Green.

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Entry filed under: General.

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