Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Let's Make A Stink on World Toilet Day

November 19, 2011

I am the proud father of World Toilet Day.  A decade ago, toilets and what we do with them were both still taboo topics. I made it my personal mission to change that.

Even though people go to the bathroom an average of six times a day, and we spend an estimated three years of our lives in the bathroom, many of us are still unwilling to discuss toilets for fear of embarrassing ourselves or offending others.

At a young age, children are still taught that they shouldn’t talk about the disgusting things that we hide behind the big euphemism “sanitation.”   

But what we won’t discuss, we can't improve.

So neglecting sanitation because we think it’s "icky" or impolite contributes to underinvestment in efforts to ensure that 2.6 billion people have access to a safe and affordable way to poop. And it doesn’t help us prevent 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea each year.

Sanitation has long been the neglected middle child of the water, sanitation, and hygiene family.

Politicians and celebrity figures tend to find it more rewarding to be photographed next to a well pumping fresh water into the hands of happy, smiling children. Very few are willing to be photographed next to a toilet. If we don’t make it safe and acceptable for leaders to engage in it, potty talk will always be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind topic. 

And the world can’t afford the cost of that silence.

The World Toilet Organization was founded in Singapore 10 years ago, on November 19, 2001. A group of leaders in the international community recognized that a lot of effort would be required to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the number of people worldwide who don’t have access to improved sanitation. And so our organization was born.

At first, our name itself provoked mixed reactions. People wondered if we were just a big punch line. What was the point of our strange mixture of bad puns and hard facts? Were we just an irreverent way to make fun of another "WTO" (World Trade Organization)?

Then global sanitation advocates started to get the joke. Our antics made the World Toilet Organization an instant media darling. And rather than just poke fun at us, reporters started to take our message seriously. Over the years, constipated mindsets have gradually given way to a flow of spontaneous creativity around the world as other organizations have joined our urgent call to action.

Activities have ranged from somewhat serious demonstrations in Washington to declare sanitation a human right; to a press conference with thought leaders seated on toilets in Berlin; to “The Big Squat” in Singapore; to an event with Malaysia’s minister of health cleaning up public toilets.

This year, World Toilet Day is being actively celebrated by leading organizations around the world, including UNICEF, Water AID, End Water Poverty,, the Acumen Fund, ONE, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the World Bank, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It has also received the active support of Unilever and other major corporate sponsors.

And I am excited that Matt Damon, the “King of Bollywood” Shahrukh Khan, and Bill Gates are willing to make potty jokes and stand next to toilets. We need even more leaders to take their example.

As we turn poop culture into pop culture, it is my dream that we can make sanitation for everyone a reality.  It may seem funny, but this is serious shit. So let’s work together to make a stink!

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