In the circles I move in these days related to my work with Grameen Foundation and Fonkoze, one often hears that more people in the world own and/or have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. I am not sure of the significance. Perhaps this factoid is meant to draw attention to the proliferation of mobile phones, or to the stalled effort to ensure safe sanitation, or maybe to misplaced priorities. (And if it is the latter, is it commenting on the priorities of the poor, or of development planners?)
Anyway, yesterday was World Toilet Day, something that Anne Hastings of Fonkoze brought to my attention when we were exchanging emails on another topic. Later, I read an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Gates Foundation’s emphasis on solving the world sanitation crisis through inventing new toilets for future deployment around the world. The thesis was that there are many low-tech and affordable solutions that already exist and the focus should be on them.
I have some sympathy for this view. A simplistic over-emphasis on “gadgetry” has infected many humanitarian efforts lately. At the same time, I think it is dangerous to dismiss the potential of new thinking, and new thinkers, to come up with technologies to better serve the world’s poor and organizations that work directly with them.
A critical factor with deploying solutions to the poor – whether they be low-tech or high tech, digital or analog, 20th century or 21st – is the institutional capacity of grassroots organizations to explain new ideas and technologies to the poor and provide the financing and troubleshooting needed to optimize impact. This is why organizations like Fonkoze are so essential, especially in places like rural Haiti where there is such a paucity of strong private, public and humanitarian institutions. (I made some similar points about the challenges confronting the “financial inclusion” agenda in a recent blog.)
In any case, as I compose this I am en route to Haiti for a meeting of the Fonkoze Family Coordinating Committee (that I described in another recent blog) and for a celebration of Anne Hastings 17 years of service in Haiti. I will be reporting on all this in the days ahead. As part of this celebration, I have been re-reading and re-posting my four-part series on Anne that was published last year.