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My First 100 Days in Pursuit of a Better Toilet

September 09, 2013

Earlier this year, I got one of those phone calls that end up changing your life.

Chris Elias, president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development program, was looking for someone to lead the foundation’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WSH) initiative. He had heard that I was on the board of Water1st, a Seattle-based NGO that has figured out how to develop truly sustainable WSH projects, and thought I might have some suggestions for the director position.

Chris wanted someone who understood the severity of the crisis of water and sanitation around the world, but could also recognize the potential for real solutions. He needed someone who could help the foundation bring awareness and resources to an issue that has received far too little attention.

 The first observation is that the lack of sanitation is indeed one of the biggest crises in global health worldwide and one where our progress over the past few decades has fallen far short of our aspirations.

Since leaving a 22-year career at Microsoft in 2010 I had committed myself to a number of fascinating projects and wasn’t looking for a job. But as I listened to Chris explain the position, I felt like he was describing my dream role.

I have always been interested in water, from both a humanitarian and a geopolitical perspective. Back when I was 12, I remember reading an article in Time magazine that suggested that the wars of the 21st century would be fought over water, not oil. I recall another that—tongue in cheek—contemplated the United States invading my home country of Canada for its fresh water supply. I was hooked.

From my time with Water1st, I learned that sanitation is also a critical issue, one that gets even less attention than water. So while this abrupt career change might have surprised some of my friends, those who know me best weren’t surprised at all.

I have now been in this role for just over 100 days, so I figured it was about time for me to reach out to my new professional community. I now know enough about the sanitation crisis—and what we and our many grantees and partners are doing to address it—to be dangerous, though I expect to continue on a very steep learning curve for years to come.

I’ll end this article with two observations. One is well known to everyone in the sector, though unfortunately not well enough to many decision makers, let alone members of the public. The second may even be news to some in the sector.

  • The first observation is that the lack of sanitation is indeed one of the biggest crises in global health worldwide and one where our progress over the past few decades has fallen far short of our aspirations. The Millennium Development Goals challenged us to reduce the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation by half by 2015, but we are not on track to reach this goal. The fact is, more people die from poor sanitation than measles, malaria, and HIV/AIDS combined. Every year, 1.5 million children die from diarrhea alone caused by inadequate sanitation.

  • The second observation is that the past few years have seen a renewed investment in innovation in sanitation, from Gates Foundation grantees and partners and many others, and we really are poised to greatly accelerate progress in this sector. Some of these innovations involve technology, while others involve market structures, approaches to governance, and entrepreneurial business models.

I am very excited to be in a position to participate in this impending sanitation revolution and to learn from those of you who are helping to drive it. It’s hard for me to think of a better space in which to make a difference.

I’ll be writing regularly in the coming months about our work, so be sure to stay tuned. And please use the comments section below to tell us what you think we’re doing well, what we could be doing better, or to share any ideas you have to help accelerate access to safe sanitation for the poor. 

  • Tags Water, Sanitation
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