Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Colonial attitudes keep coming back...with a new hat

Look! Disembodied African hands! This must be a good paper on water! (Source)

The Copenhagen Consensus, an environmental think tank, just released the 2012 Water and Sanitation Challenge Paper, a paper on sanitation and water solutions commissioned from Frank Rijsberman, director of water, sanitation, and hygiene for the Gates Foundation, and Alix Peterson Zwane, a senior program officer. The Copenhagen Consensus’s tagline is “solving the world’s challenges,” and they say they are one of the “best environmental think tanks in the world.” Since the 2008 document focused on water, the authors decided to focus on sanitation this time. I was excited, by weary.

The paper starts out with this: we’ve already met the Millennium Development Goal on water, to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe water, but we’re going to completely miss the goal of halving the proportion of the population without basic sanitation. Some 2.5 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation—this, incidentally, is a number that’s been quoted a lot, but I haven’t entirely figured out where it came from or how it came to be. But I’m certainly the last person to contest how important sanitation is. Slate did a good summary of the paper too, that you might want to check out if you don’t want to go through the whole thing.

But while the paper made a few good points (the economic importance of sanitation, the need to “reinvent” the toilet, the need to make sanitation an “aspirational” product), it replicated a lot of the problematic wording that’s pretty common in public health discussions. See if you can spot my problem:

 “There is also suggestive evidence that improving sanitation presents a coordination failure and that behavioral biases prevent optimal take-up, which also bolsters the case for subsidies.”

Behavioral biases? Let’s blame the people and their “behavior.” Not the systems, or bad technology, or latrines that require you to haul water to flush it, or really disgusting-looking toilets that people don’t want to use. Oddly enough, such language sounds a lot like some of the British discourses. Quote from the paper I just wrote on 19th sanitation in Delhi:

When systems failed, technology was not blamed: it was the lack of funds (citation), it was the ‘backwardness’ of the natives, it was the ‘recalcitrance of social ideas’ (citation) and the fault of bickering politicians who got in the way of the march of ‘technology’… And yet, technology cannot be divorced from the context from which it is born nor the context into which it is meant to be installed: ‘it is not sufficient to blame economists or politicians, for science, too, has partly failed its best intentions’ (citation).

             Politicians? Money? Technology? “Backwardness of the natives” (updated to be “behavior biases”)? All of these are themes brought up in the Challenge paper: countries aren’t investing enough, politicians aren’t agreeing. While in this excerpt, technology was seen as high and mighty, there is in the Challenge paper an acknowledgement that we need to “reinvent the toilet”, to create one that will be an “aspirational item”: the “smartphone of toilets.” But this technology is within reach, the paper claims, which means that, like with the British in India in the 19th century, the blame is primarily on people, money, and politics.

            This “blame the people” assumption is implicit in the first intervention the paper advocates, that of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an approach that is becoming pretty widespread, being funded and used by WaterAid, UNICEF, Plan, Gates, and a whole bunch of others. The idea is that a facilitator goes into a village and “triggers” disgust at their open defecation practices through a variety of methods, like calculating how much feces gets deposited each day, mapping where it goes, putting human feces found in a field next to some food and daring people to eat it, putting some hair in some feces then in water and daring people to drink it, giving children whistles to blow at people they catch openly defecating, and many more. Then, after everyone realizes how disgusting they are, they pressure each other into building toilets. (I’ll write more on this later, since it’s one of my favorite topics to rant about.)

It’s not that they’re poor or the government has failed to provide basic systems. The natives just have bad hygiene, right? They’re just dirty or ignorant and don’t realize how disgusting they are. Vijay Prashad writes (talking about British attitudes in Delhi), “From the standpoint of the colonial officials from the 1860s, it was easier to bemoan the native’s putative lack of hygiene than to produce systems of sanitation to remedy the lack of amenities” (citation). Incidentally, one of the most important parts of CLTS, as originally conceived by its founder? Don’t give people subsidies. It’s their responsibility to build latrines, they just need to have their backwards ideas fixed.

Remember the old trope about repeating history? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop cycling back? Development is never going to lose its colonialism-in-a-new-hat attitudes if we don’t examine more closely the words we use and the assumptions behind them.

What are your thoughts? Are there other ways we can talk about “behavioral change” without setting up the same old hierarchy? Where should sanitation programs be targeted?

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