When Worlds Collide #43: Toilets or Telephones? That’s the Wrong Question!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 25 November 2012

World Toilet Day logo

November 19 was World Toilet Day.

It highlights a major development challenge of our times. This international day of action “aims to break the taboo around toilets and draw attention to the global sanitation challenge”.

The numbers are staggering: around the world, some 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a clean, private toilet. That means one in three human beings can’t relieve themselves with dignity – despite billions invested in socio-economic development over the years.

Sri Lanka has its share of this problem. For example, 1,300 out of the country’s 9,500 public schools don’t have toilets. That means nearly a million school kids have nowhere to…go.

World Toilet Day champions this very worthy cause, and those who advocate sanitation for all are promoting a human right that is often not discussed in earnest.

But sometimes single-issue activists get carried away by their own enthusiasm, and stray into irrelevant comparisons. A case in point: the popular refrain “India has more mobile phones than toilets!”

Predictably, it popped up on Twitter on World Toilet Day. The one-liner started making headlines in March 2011, soon after the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs released the first set of detailed data from its 2011 Census on “Houses, Households Amenities and Assets”.

It showed that Indians are more ‘connected’ than ever before: in 2011, 63.2% of Indian households had a telephone connection, most of it mobile. It also found that 53.1% of households didn’t have access to any toilet facilities. The situation was worse in rural areas, where 67.3% had no toilets; people were forced to defecate in the open.

Mobile revolution across Asia – photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Unfair Comparisons

So, on the face of it, the conclusion seems: more phones in use than toilets across India. But is that comparison realistic?

No, it isn’t, says Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who heads LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based think tank that studies information and communication technologies (ICTs) in emerging economies.

Until a generation ago, privileged households in South Asia had a single fixed phone shared by a whole family. Much has changed in just two decades. Costs of owning and using a mobile have come down so much that most people, even those at the bottom of the income pyramid, can afford one. Many now treat mobile phones as personal devices.

LIRNEasia’s multi-country, large sample surveys in South and Southeast Asia since 2006 have shown how a growing number of phone users own multiple mobile SIMs. They switch between networks to benefit from various rates and packages.

Samarajiva explains: “Mobiles are personal devices; toilets are generally a household amenity. Except in (Indian billionaire) Mukesh Ambani’s house, the number of toilets is generally lower than the number of people living in the house. There is no way one can directly compare the number of mobile SIMs…with the numbers of toilets in a meaningful way.”

If anyone really wants a legitimate mobile/phone to toilet comparison, Samarajiva suggests working with data from the demand side: census or representative-sample household surveys.

He has recently done that for Sri Lanka, using data amassed by the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics covering a countrywide sample of 22,500 households. It collected data on whether households have mobiles, fixed phones, or both, along with data on toilets for household’s exclusive use. (Report at: www.tiny.cc/HIES910)

He found that it is only in the richest Western Province – which contributes around half the country’s GDP — that the number of households with phones comes even close to the number of households with toilets for exclusive use.

Of course, Sri Lanka is not India. Yet, this highlights dangers of fleeting conclusions that try to ride the endlessly ‘breaking news’ cycles.

It’s not as if people willingly trade off toilets for mobile phones – as suggested in some Indian media discussions. There are economic and infrastructure reasons why hundreds of millions don’t have toilet facilities. Culture and education play a less significant role.

The relatively high cost is one. The UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in 2010 estimated an average cost of USD 300 to build a basic toilet, including labour and materials (see http://tiny.cc/UNUSan). When built with a house, as most people do, a toilet often costs more.

It’s not simply a matter of investing public, private or charity money either. Larger issues of water supply, land tenure and house ownership come into the picture. Infrastructure development has lagged behind the growth of cities and towns.

Bangladeshi telecom analyst Abu Saeed Khan noted on LIRNEasia’s blog: “The rural Indians, like billions of other Asian villagers, remain out of the power grid and water supply system. Yet they can afford to have a mobile phone or at least enjoy universal access to it. This is the only similarity between the slum dwellers and the villagers at the technology front. But their access to decent sanitation remains equally despicable.”

The unmet sanitation challenge is a big blot on the international development agenda. It deserves political attention, practical technologies and meaningful investments.

Revisit Basic Needs

At the same time, we should revisit the whole notion of basic needs that shapes many studies, policies and debates.

There is no single, universally accepted definition (or listing) of basic human needs. It has been discussed for centuries. During the 1970s, basic needs emerged as a key topic. Various studies — catalysed by UN agencies and the Club of Rome – tried to define it in terms of development strategies and goals.

In 1976, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) prepared a report that defined basic needs as food, clothing, housing, education and public transportation. It partially drew on ILO country reports on Columbia, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

The same year, Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, then with the World Bank, published a book titled The Poverty Curtain: Choices for the Third World. It provided the framework for basic needs and human development approaches for years to follow.

Since then, different development agencies have adopted variations of the ILO list. National planners have used the concept to benchmark economic growth needed for all people to fulfill at least the basic needs.

The ground reality has changed drastically since those heady days. It would be good for development practitioners shed their romanticised notions and finally acknowledge the rising tide of expectations.

About a year ago, I asked Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, if communication should be considered a basic human need. He welcomed the idea, especially in view of rapid evolution of information society.

That evolution has cut cross socio-economic layers. Nicholas Sullivan, in his 2007 book You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy (John Wiley & Sons) offers a non-technical look at the unfolding grassroots transformation (www.youcanhearmenow.com).

Sullivan calls it an external combustion engine: “a combination of forces that is sparking economic growth and lifting people out of poverty in countries long dominated by aid-dependent governments.”

Perceptive political leaders are taking note. Sullivan quotes President Nelson Mandela as saying in a 1995 speech: “The desire to be in touch lies deep within us. It is a basic need.”

At the time, less than 1% of all Africans had access to a fixed phone, and there were only around one million mobile phones on the continent of 800 million.

Mobiles have proliferated phenomenally since, but the Rip van Winkles of Development have yet to wake up from their long slumber. What will it take?

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Communicating Development, Culture, Environment, ICT, Sanitation, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Water and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Worlds Collide #43: Toilets or Telephones? That’s the Wrong Question!

  1. Mel says:

    Nice piece. We can start off some public debate to encourage more resource allocation to toilets in Sri Lanka. I didn’t realise that toilets cost as much as building a house!

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