Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

WASH United Defeats Diarrhea, 3-0!

November 16, 2011

This week, in addition to announcing some new advocacy partnerships with organizations such as WASH United, we’re partnering with other powerful advocates, including , the World Toilet Organization,, Acumen Fund, Water for People, and ONE, to “Talk Sh*t All Week”. Check back this week on our blog to learn more.  

An orphaned issue

Imagine if an airline crashed a jumbo jet every day for a week. Public outrage would ensue, and media all over the world would have a field day. Preventable diseases caused by a lack of toilets and poor hygiene kill the equivalent of eight 747’s filled with children every day. However, there still is only one day each year when we even stand a reasonable chance of finding some toilet talk in the media: World Toilet Day. 

So why is it that the world doesn’t seem to give a sh*t about this massive crisis? According to Haile Gebrselassie, two time Olympic gold medalist and WASH United ambassador for Ethiopia, a key problem is that “sanitation and related issues of hygiene, particularly women’s hygiene, are still considered ‘dirty’ issues and people are uncomfortable to talk about them. But if you cannot openly talk about an issue, you also cannot change it.”

Tackling the toilet taboo: learning from big brands

Haile’s analysis is spot on. Sanitation doesn’t just lack sex appeal, it is still widely considered a taboo topic, which leads to a vicious circle: the lack of debate on sanitation within the general public and the media’s silence leads to low political prioritization of the issue, which is the reason for continued neglect when scarce financial resources are allocated.

WASH United recognizes that in order to break that cycle, sanitation needs to be viewed as a brand with a PR problem, and we believe that much can be learned from brands that have successfully marketed their products and services among poor and marginalized people. Brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi, for instance, whose sugary beverages can be found in all of those places where we don’t find toilets yet.

What can we learn from those brands? Traditionally, communications for better sanitation focused on the improvement of health conditions, appealing to the left side of our brain, the rational part in us. Successful brands, however, appeal also to the right side of our brain, the emotional part. They use exciting, aspirational communications to charge their products with positive emotions that make their customers feel cooler, sexier, and happier.

People living in poverty don’t have a rational reason to buy sugary soft drinks. They do it because these products fulfill emotional desires. To quote Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization and a sanitation pioneer, “The poor have dreams and aspirations, too. They don’t want dirty, dusty, cheap!” That’s an important insight that is very much confirmed in Abhijit Banerjee’s and Esther Duflo’s inspiring work, Poor Economics

Sport superstars acting as champions for sanitation

One key mechanism that brands use to market their products is celebrity endorsement. And just like Pepsi works with Didier Drogba in Africa to charge their beverage with the positive emotions he generates, WASH United works with Didier as a WASH champion to make sanitation more attractive. When Didier holds up three fingers, children listen to the message that we need three things to defeat diarrhea:  safe drinking water, a personal commitment to handwashing with soap, and a clean toilet.

Many of the stars who are helping to promote sanitation and hygiene know from their own experience what life without sanitation means. Like Asamoah Gyan, one of the biggest stars of the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, and one of the most recent additions to WASH United’s team of champions, who remembers from his school days that “there were no hand washing facilities. Worm infestations were rife and diarrhea kept students away frequently. Adolescent girls were regular absentees as there were no facilities for them to manage their menstruation privately and with dignity.” WASH United will work with Asamoah and the newly founded Asamoah Gyan Foundation to promote WASH in Ghana and in Africa, specifically focusing on improving WASH for girls in schools.

In India, Yusuf and Irfan Pathan, two of the country’s biggest cricket stars, have joined the WASH United initiative to tackle India’s massive sanitation crisis with this call to action “600 million Indian men, women and children are forced to the indignity of defecating on railroad tracks, roadside ditches and other open places in and around their communities every day. In our view, it is simply unacceptable that a country that has given the world so much to love, a country that inspires the world in so many areas – our country – is leading the world in children dying from preventable diarrhea due to a lack of toilets. The ICC cricket World Cup this year showed what we can achieve together as a nation. We won the World Cup. Now, as a nation, let us become Sanitation World Champions!”

The WASH United Club

The fact that role models like Haile, Asamoah, Yusuf, and Irfan are now speaking out openly about sanitation and hygiene makes a big difference, particularly with regard to getting the issue in the media. WASH United Country Coordinator in Kenya, Kerubo Okioga, for instance, has been working in water, sanitation, and human rights for close to 10 years and always had to chase the journalists. Now with WASH United, the media are coming to her to get the stories.

While star ambassadors are one key element in WASH United’s strategy to make sanitation more attractive, they are of course not the only one. Other key ingredients of our recipe are strictly positive and inspirational messaging, as well as the use of exciting educational games that allow people to experience the importance of sanitation in an interactive fashion rather than being passive recipients of information.

Finally, there is WASH United’s overarching club concept. Children who complete the WASH United training are admitted to the WASH United Club, thereby teaming up with their biggest heroes. But they also commit to adhering to the club rules: washing hands with soap at critical times, using toilets when available and keeping them safe and clean. Dennis Wanyoike, aged 11, from Jehovah Jireh Primary School in Nairobi told us what joining the WASH United Club meant to him. “I remember the day I became a member of WASH United and will never forget it,” Dennis said. “I decided to put the poster of Drogba in my room to remind me of my commitment to WASH United values. I believe we all have the right to safe water for drinking and sanitation regardless, of our background.”

Time for toilet talk

In order to really tackle the current crisis in sanitation, we first need to get talking about the issue. Openly and frankly. And that goes for both developed and developing countries. On World Toilet Day, you can be a champion for sanitation, too. Take the initiative to talk sh*t with three other people, forward them some interesting information, or just discuss what you have read today.

It’s high time for toilet-talk!

About WASH United:

Started in 2010, WASH United is a unique coalition of international and African civil society organizations, United Nations agencies, governments and leading actors from the world of sport. Together, this coalition harnesses the positive power of sport, fun and interactive games to promote safe drinking WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for all people, everywhere. Thus far, more than 25 million people have been reached through WASH United events and media campaigns, more than 30.000 children have joined the WASH United Club, committing to practicing good WASH behavior. In 2012-2013, WASH United will be working in a project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to scale-up WASH United’s work in Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho and Uganda and to initiate a cricket-based campaign in India. 

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