On this World Toilet Day, we are challenging ourselves to rethink how we write, represent and talk about global sanitation problems, particularly toilets.
We’ve noticed some fairly resistant tropes used to highlight the developing world’s toilet issues, like:
- Sliding pictures of slums with sad music, reminiscent of “Slumdog Millionnaire,” and the flying toilets of Kibera.
- Photographs of toilets in disuse, toilets filled up with garbage, field sized areas of sewage, steamy and stagnant, that accompany explanations of why we need to reinvent the toilet.
- Images of women in India walking into fields to relieve themselves with captions about their vulnerability and statistics of their likelihood of being assaulted.
- Happy people standing in front of their shiny, newly constructed toilets.
- A quote from Bill Gates or the one by Gandhi.
None of these references present things untrue and many a well-intentioned essay or article have used them with conviction and have been successful at raising concern. As practitioners who have worked in sanitation, we’re just as guilty. But we think something does get lost in the rehashing of big, serious issues like poor sanitation, poverty and inequality into the same tired set of data points.
So how do we write about toilets?
For that matter, how do we write about anything that relates to the problems of humanity, without having to use the easiest (read: boring/shocking and reductive) cases to try to draw interest, empathy, and most importantly, engagement from people? We think this, too, is a problem of access and supply.
While there are numerous places – in print and on the web – to find stories about global development that range in tone and audience, most of it is put out by donor organizations or by those paid directly by or indirectly through funders to publish program results. Notice how often a story about World Toilet Day today will mention a big funding agency, or a project or program that is working on sanitation issues. There is nothing wrong with this – World Toilet Day is for campaigns. And development agencies want audiences to understand the serious goals they are working towards, to know that millions of dollars are being spent to solve devastating and complex problems and to tell us how they were successful.
However, we see a gap – a dearth of independent reporting that examines the implications of development and aid activities, presents views from citizens and communities, and offers a critical, reflective perspective on the business of aid from its insiders.
For those within the development sector, we find there is a never-ending conversation about improving the way we should talk about our work. There is concern amongst practitioners that their work is not “getting out” and an anxiety that the right messages about the sector are not being shared more widely. This anxiety is entirely justified as we’ve observed “darling NGOs” (ones that have a minimally impactful outcome, product or service, but great marketing and top dollar support) are much more media friendly than equally impactful work happening on a smaller scale. Real, practical examples of reaching impact goals often sound dull and are mired by jargon and budgets for communication are notoriously tight. There is a clear need and felt demand for an objective, investigative approach to telling stories of development and culture that can also carry the opinion of people who have a vested interest in and are familiar with the types of compromises that development requires.
The sector is changing. Today the business of aid includes more diverse groups than ever, the most powerful of whom are citizens, and there is a need for clear, cogent, analytical writing about development that elevates it from repeated formulas and tells stories in a way that can engage with audiences directly.
Our idea for Broken Toilets emerged from frustration with the huge gap between the frank, critical, inspiring conversations we would have with colleagues versus how this work was portrayed in reports and mainstream media. To put it very simply, we wanted to find a way to talk more openly about how this work actually gets done, and to find a way to increase the number of people with whom we have this conversation. Speaking as practitioners, we think this is important, and is a critically missing link that can only make the collective efforts we’ve been engaged in more meaningful.
This is how we’re proposing to do it: With the help of narrative journalists, citizen journalists, researchers and practitioners, Broken Toilets will present stories in global development that tell us what’s working, what’s not working and how. Our first three issues will tackle the following topics: real recovery after a natural disaster, the conundrums of fecal sludge management, and the communities involved in using open data for development.
By presenting complex issues in captivating ways, we ultimately want our stories and features to inform, engage and empower our audiences to be catalysts for social change.
We hope you’ll join us.
Emily Madsen & Samyuktha Varma