Monday, May 13, 2013

Five reasons toilets and cell phones are different



For some reason, several of the sanitation-related articles I’ve read in the past few months have had the same statistic: on the planet today, there are more cell phones than toilets! (That’s only one link, but search ‘toilets and cell phones’ and you’ll see the ubiquity of the comparison. There is some slight variation in that some articles say that cell phone coverage is better than toilet coverage, but same idea.) GASP! We need to make toilets like the smart phones, says the Copenhagen Consensus report—we need to make everyone want one!

Source
I’m not certain whey we ended up with this cell phone and toilet comparison. Maybe because we keep dropping our phones into toilets.

Whatever the reason, I’d like to suggest five reasons why toilets are not like cell phones.

1) One’s a necessity, and the other is a nicety.
Perhaps the reason that this comes up all the time is that from over here, cell phones are seen as a nicety, whereas toilets are a necessity. We remember a time without cell phones, right? We survived. But toilets—geeze, you need those. Right? And toilets are so low-tech. Ha ha—isn’t it so strange and quirky that people have cell phones but not toilets? (Note the subtext: weird foreigners with stupid priorities.)
However, think about people’s priorities. Cell phones let you do business. It’s quickly becoming a necessity for people at all levels—the rickshaw driver in India or the bajaj drive in Ethiopia needs to have a phone to conduct business. People use cell phones to let each other know the water tank prices so their relative the next village over doesn’t get ripped off. They use it for transferring funds and banking. Farmers can use it to find the best price for their goods
Toilets, on the other hand, are a good experience, but the financial benefit is indirect. It’s hard to point out to a community that hey, you saved money this year, because you built toilets and didn’t get sick. And to see real health effects, everyone in the community needs to get the toilet. One family without a toilet puts the whole community at risk.
So if you were someone in a developing context, which would you pick?

2) One people have control over, and it works.
You can have two kinds of toilets (it’s an over-simplification, but bear with me): self-managing, decentralized sanitation systems or state managed systems. There are also some NGO managed systems, but those are much more rare. The self-managed systems, such as composting toilets, pit latrines, or any other system that relies on the family or individual to directly manage the waste of their latrine, are often the ones that end up breaking down or not being maintained because maintenance can be expensive in terms of time and money.
State-managed systems, on the other hand, rely on the government to be in charge of the maintenance of the infrastructure that takes the waste away and (hopefully) do something with it that’s slightly better than dumping it in your backyard. This is what we have, and what many places strive to have. (Yes, the government won’t hire a plumber to deal with your toilet clog, but most of the waste management process is paid for with taxes.)  In many countries, the state is not managing these systems. If someone does choose to pay for a toilet, they must constantly invest to maintain the system, with time (as in scooping out a composting toilet) or money (like hiring a service to pump your tank). And this is for something that, as mentioned in #1, there is not necessarily a super-direct benefit that is evident.
Cell phones, on the other hand, you can buy from your local wala or shop owner and have a nicely functioning device with a system that is maintained by a series of entrepreneurs and corporations. You just have to put money in the system occasionally, which is a pretty simple process. You can charge your phone with as much money as you want or have. Other people can charge your phone. (One of the sweetest things someone has ever done for me was to charge my Indian cell phone from across the country so he could call me and tell me good-bye.)

3) One of these is more important to men.
Most articles talk about how good sanitation is positive for women and girls. This is something I agree with, especially when good sanitation facilities are coupled with water facilities that allow women to have good menstrual hygiene. But toilets are more important to women. Men can just piss in a corner. The argument too, that having a toilet increases prestige is more intimately tied into the female role as being the manager of the household. 
In most cultures, men are the primary earners. As mentioned above, cell phones are becoming a necessity for the acquisition of not only economic capital, but social capital as well (ie, making friends, creating a network of customers). Cell phones support male roles; toilets are a more feminine issue. Given that men still usually control financial flows (I’m sure we can complicate that claim, but can we just not right now?), men are going to be more likely to spend money on a cell phone than a toilet.

4) One of these items deals with shit.  
With the possible exception of Japan, people aren’t into toilets much as a commodity item. It’s a place where we perform one of our most taboo bodily functions. Smart phones, on the other hand, you can pull out of your pocket—show your friends. Look up where you saw that one actress. Find directions. Play games. Distract a two year old. Smart phones are all about active utility.
Toilets, on the other hand, tend to have a much more passive utility—they don’t really do something awesome. Toilets are awesome—they make solid waste disappear so we don’t ingest as much of it. It means I can not have a smelly neighborhood. But again, that’s a passive utility. It’s a prevention mechanism. We’re glad it happens, but we (generally) don’t get excited about it. Smart phones you get excited over and show your friends. Toilets are about concealing a body function we’re incredibly ashamed of.

5) The world does not need as many toilets as cell phones.
Think about it. Yes, there are more cell phones than toilets, but how many people will use a single cell phone? Often times, about one. Maybe a whole family. Cell phones often need to be with you for them to be of use, limiting the number of users a single cell can have. Toilets, on the other hand, can be used by dozens of people. Yes, some articles compare cell phone coverage with toilet coverage, which is a far better way to talk about it, but others cite raw numbers. 

So yes, there are other reasons that cell phones are not like toilets. (Only one of them is supposed to be sat on.) It’s still a tragic statistic, especially when you discuss it in terms of coverage and not just numbers. But making this comparison threatens people to try to find solutions in the realm of cell phones. These are not the same problem. Cell phones have found success in Africa in great part because of market deregulation, but given that toilets often have little direct benefit, are gendered problems, deal with human shit, and require an extensive cleaning process, will the free market really tackle the sanitation problem?

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