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
—we need to make everyone want one!
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
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
, 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?