What is the difference between improving sanitation and selling Coca Cola?
14 August 2012
Gordon McGranahan of SHARE partner IIED is a lead researcher on the SHARE City-Wide Sanitation Project. Here, he outlines his views on the demand problems which lie at the centre of the global sanitary challenge, and why he believes that a sanitation marketing approach based on commercial principles cannot address these problems. Readers can comment in response to this article below.
Sanitation marketing has become popular in recent years and, as the latest toolkit on the subject indicates, this is sometimes taken to involve “using commercial marketing techniques to motivate households to build toilets” (Devine and Kullmann 2011) . Most practitioners avoid this narrow interpretation. Indeed, the toolkit just cited devotes a lot of attention to Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an approach which owes far more to the techniques of participatory research than to those of commercial marketing (Kar 2008).
So, what could be wrong with promoting toilets as if they were a consumer good like Coca Cola?
There is a contentious argument against “sanitation marketing”, which its exponents must have already envisaged when they coined the term. Sanitation is viewed by many as a human right that governments have an obligation to provide if people cannot afford it themselves. Getting people who live in poverty to spend more money on sanitation can be seen as an attempt to avoid this responsibility, that if misjudged will drive people further into poverty. While there some truth to this claim, I would like to propose that there are indeed demand problems at the centre of the sanitary challenge, but not generally of the sort conventional marketing can address.
The demand problems outlined below are primarily relevant to urban settlements where conventional sewered toilets are not a realistic or appropriate option. Once everyone has piped water and sewered toilets in their home, it is comparatively easy to address demand deficiencies – indeed the more serious demand problem is typically getting people to flush their toilets less and waste less water. However, where public services are lacking, economic resources are very scarce, and people are choosing, building and managing their own sanitation facilities, various demand problems emerge. These often result in sanitation provision lagging far behind other forms of consumption, particularly from a public health perspective.
I have categorised these demand problems as a collective action challenge, an affordability challenge, a coproduction challenge and a cross-sectoral challenge.
The collective action challenge
One reason sanitation lags behind other material improvements is that it combines some of our most private behaviours (which we don’t really like talking about collectively) with some of our most public impacts (which we don’t really want to do anything about individually). In low-income settings, this often means that people face a local collective action problem they would prefer to ignore. The sanitary problems they encounter are largely public, and their resolution depends more on changing the sanitary facilities and behaviours of others than on changing their own. In effect, local residents need to cooperate to make their demand effective. From this perspective, a key strength of Community Led Total Sanitation lies in the fact that it does not try to sell toilets to individuals, but to “trigger” communities to stop open defecation (Kar 2008) . It gets people to talk in groups about the faeces they are exposed to in their neighbourhoods, and to act collectively to dispose of these faeces more hygienically. Local collective action has also been central to successful community-driven sanitary initiatives in urban areas, such as the lanes in the Orangi Pilot Project (Pervaiz, Rahman, and Hasan 2008) or the public toilet blocks set up by Mahila Milan, SPARC and the Indian Federation of Slum Dwellers in Pune and Mumbai (Burra, Patel, and Kerr 2003) . Marketing sanitation as if it were like Coca Cola is no substitute for this sort of local collective action, and could undermine it.
The affordability challenge
Where poverty is prevalent, even the collective willingness to pay for sanitation is unlikely to cover the costs of facilities deemed acceptable by health experts, governments or even by the community members themselves. After all, part of the definition living in poverty is being unable to afford acceptable levels of consumption. In such a situation, manipulative or regulatory means of increasing demand may help the better off, while harming the poorest, particularly if it forces their demand up above what they would collectively be willing to pay. Regulations are probably the most common means of trying to stimulate demand: Just as governments often require anyone who builds a car to put in various pollution controlling devices, they may require anyone who builds a house to construct acceptable sanitation facilities. In principle, such regulations can be calibrated to raise the demand for sanitation to the point where the collective action problem noted above is solved. However, excessively high standards can also be used to exclude already disadvantaged groups, or to steer limited subsidies towards wealthier groups. And in practice, they often contribute to the creation of informal settlements, which do not conform to official regulations, and whose residents are often victimised as a result. Marketing sanitation like Coca Cola would be less objectionable, as it would involve nudging and cajoling rather than threatening people to improve their sanitation. And Coca Cola certainly does worry about consumer preferences and affordability. On the other hand, trying to sell sanitation as if it were a normal commodity begs the question of how to make sure that the sanitary facilities being promoted are affordable in communities that use them, and ignores the fact that this is not just a question for experts and consumers, but most importantly for groups of people living in the unsanitary neighbourhoods.
The coproduction challenge
The most obvious reasons low cost sanitation facilities need to be coproduced, with both communities and public agencies or utilities contributing inputs, would seem to lie more on the supply than the demand side. Unless local residents are actively involved, public agencies find it difficult to construct and manage sanitation facilities in low-income communities. Unless public agencies are involved, communities find it difficult to manage the ultimate disposal of their human waste. But there are also demand problems here. Public agencies have little incentive to improve conditions for the politically weak residents of informal settlements – the demands of these residents are not effectively represented in the public sector. The residents, on the other hand, have little incentive to worry about what happens to their sewage once it flows or is transported out of the settlement. The difficulties with providing water and sanitation services to individual households led Mara and Alabaster (2008) to suggest a new “paradigm” involving provision to groups or communities rather than to individual households. One of their principal examples is that of Brazilian condominial sewers that are low cost but can feed into conventional trunk sewers managed by the local utility; a model similar to the component sharing of the Orangi Pilot Project in Pakistan (Pervaiz, Rahman, and Hasan 2008) . Condominial sewers were also one of the examples that Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom (1996) used in a seminal article to illustrate how co-production can improve service delivery, not only by tapping local knowledge, but also by pushing public providers to be more responsive to the demands of intended beneficiaries. In the case of public services like sanitation co-production can, when implemented well, improve the quality of demand and the effective level of supply, and perhaps even increase the political clout of disadvantaged residents. The same cannot be said of Coca Cola.
The cross-sectoral challenge
The causes and consequences of poor sanitation are very difficult to disentangle from other poverty-related problems. Within many low-income urban localities, sanitation problems are physically intertwined with shelter, solid waste disposal and drainage deficiencies. Moreover, the barriers to sanitary improvement are often linked to other poverty problems, ranging from tenure insecurity to fluctuating finances, many of which are very location specific. These complications influence the demand for sanitation in ways that can be difficult to predict: people living in insecure informal settlements may be disinclined to invest in improved sanitation in their homes because of the fear of being forced to move on, or conversely could see improved sanitation as a means to protect themselves from eviction. These complications also mean that, unlike Coca Cola, good sanitation is not embodied in a particular product, which can be branded, marketed and sold. Indeed, many of the most critical demand problems cannot even be addressed from within the water and sanitation sector.
All this is not to say that marketing techniques are never appropriate. It may sometimes make sense, from the perspective of improving people’s lives, to promote well-defined behaviours and products, like handwashing and SanPlats, whose potential for improving health is clear. Generally, however, anyone who thinks that the lack of effective demand for sanitation reflects poor marketing techniques is likely to cause more problems than they solve .
In the SHARE-funded City-Wide Sanitation Project, SHARE partners IIED and SDI are working together to support federations of community organizations in Blantyre (Malawi), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Kitwe (Zambia), and Chinhoyi (Zimbabwe) in their attempt to develop and test a community-driven model of tackling sanitation problems. This will involve strengthening community organizations, seeking out affordable but acceptable sanitary improvements, negotiating with local authorities to gain formal legitimacy and support, and embedding these improvements within a broader effort to address shelter deficiencies in informal settlements. In the process, we hope to gain a better understanding of the four challenges I just described, and how they can be overcome.
Burra, S., S. Patel and T. Kerr (2003) 'Community-designed, built and managed toilet blocks in Indian cities', Environment and Urbanization, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 11-32
Devine, J. and C. Kullmann (2011) Introductory guide to sanitation marketing World Bank Water and Sanitation Program: Washington DC
Kar, K. (2008) Handbook on community-led total sanitation Plan UK and the Institute for Development Studies: London and Brighton
Mara, D. and G. Alabaster (2008) 'A new paradigm for low-cost urban water supplies and sanitation in developing countries' Water Policy, vol. 10, no. 2, pp 119-129
Ostrom, E. (1996) 'Crossing the great divide: Coproduction, synergy and development', World Development, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 1073-1087
Pervaiz, A., P. Rahman and A. Hasan (2008) 'Lessons from Karachi: The role of demostration, documentation, mapping and relationship building in advocacy for improved urban sanitation and water services', Human Settlements Working Paper 6, Water Series, IIED: London