Why Toilets, Not Cell Phones, Are Key To Education Around The World

Why Toilets, Not Cell Phones, Are Key To Education Around The World Source: Forbes, Denise Restauri, Contributor, Jan 3, 2012

John Kluge’s Twitter profile: “Social Entrepreneur, Philanthropunk, Toilet Hacker, Co-Founder of Eirene, Resident Fellow @ewinstitute, Co-author Charity & Philanthropy for Dummies – New York City.” As co-Founder of Eirene, the for-profit angel firm, John only supports initiatives that will impact at least 1 billion people. First up: provide 1 million toilets to the developing world.  

John Kluge, A Committed Toilet Hacker

John Kluge, A Committed Toilet Hacker

John Kluge says things many people want to say, but don’t because they think it’s taboo. Kluge is out to change that. His “Give a Sh*t Manifesto” starts with BE THANKFUL. YOU HAVE A TOILET. 2.5 BILLION DO NOT. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS SH*T. While others whisper the word “sanitation,” John and Co-Chief Toilet Hacker, Michael Lindenmayer say it boldly. Their stickers shout out: “Disrupt SH*T” and “Poop is POWER.” With support from their partners including the World Bank, Water for People, and UNICEF– these two toilet hackers are taking on the giant-sized challenge to develop breakthrough innovations for improving access to sanitation for the world’s poor.

My conversation with John Kluge:
Kluge: How many people do you think don’t have a toilet in the world? 2.5 BILLION people don’t have a toilet. Nearly 40% of humanity lives without access to sanitation or toilets.
Me: That’s crazy.
Kluge: We’re talking NO toilet. In India, there are 3 cell phones for every toilet. Yes, you can call someone halfway around the world, but getting access to the most powerful health tool around is out of reach.

Once I wrapped my head around those stats and thought about what no toilet means — people using open fields, lakes and rivers behind their homes, John shared this crisis statement about girls that got my GirlQuake attention:

SANITATION + GIRLS = EDUCATION + EMPOWERMENT. “In developing countries, menstruation is the number one cause of school absenteeism, ahead of malaria and other diseases – it can cause girls to miss up to 20% of school days, and is a major barrier to empowering women and girls. Menstrual health education and gender-friendly sanitation facilities go a long way towards improving the situation, but we need to monitor to ensure that girls’ attendance in schools picks up after providing menstrual health education/gender-friendly sanitation facilities.” Reason for collecting this data is that by showing positive results, regional governments are more likely to provide the funding needed to help fix the problem.

As Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters explained the problem in her recent New York Times op-ed:

Concentrating on lessons when you are desperate for the bathroom is hard on anyone. It’s nearly impossible for a girl who is menstruating and has nowhere to change or dispose of her pad. Girls grow tired of dealing with it. Often their families encourage them to stay home from school and get married. In one survey, 23 percent of Indian school-age girls dropped out of school when they reached puberty.”

This isn’t about fixing a girl’s problem — this is about fixing the world’s problems. There is clear evidence that when we invest in a girl’s education, she will contribute to the economic growth of her family, community and country when she becomes a woman. Educated girls have a better chance of living healthier, delaying marriage and childbirth, resisting domestic violence and securing better jobs. Education is the door to stopping the cycle of poverty and toilets are an important key to that door.

The fix? Bring in the innovators — the hackers. In December 2012, John and Michael helped organize a hackathon that brought together 1250 innovators from across 10 countries to come up with a solution that would monitor girls’ attendance at schools after implementing gender-friendly sanitation facilities. Hackers weren’t just plumbers, geeky engineers and social workers – many of the hackers were people who have nothing to do with sanitation.

I stopped by the NYC hackathon and here’s what I saw: A community of problem solvers from different demos and sectors tackling the problem of sanitation. Or as John said on the final day of the weekend hackathon, “People here jumped through hoops, crossed boundaries and changed sh*t.”

What else I saw – women. Most hackathons are a bunch of guys geeking out in a room, but this hackathon had a lot of females. John explains why this is important, “Engaging active problem solvers who are women to take on this issue is a priority because it’s a priority to make women champions of water and sanitation locally, nationally and globally because they are the first adopters in their villages. In most cultures across the globe the responsibility of collecting water falls on women and girls… but they also face the brunt of lack of sanitation facilities.”

John and Michael share the overall results of the hackathon:
“Thanks to the unlikely collaboration between technologists and sanitation experts, and the stewardship of our friends at the World Bank and Random Hacks of Kindness-who helped facilitate the hackathon-over 181 prototypes were built for 130 sanitation-related problems over the course of 48 hours. Now we get to see those prototypes tested in the field.”

Plus the results specific to girls:
“SchoolTrack is a program designed to track the number of students by gender at schools. This application was requested by the World Bank to provide data and evidence that sanitation facilities and women’s health education at schools improves the attendance of girls. If we can demonstrate this data, regional governments are more likely to provide funding to these kinds of programs that would help reduce the number of girls dropping out of school. This ap was developed by Allegra Fisher, Megann Mielke, John Marc Imbrecia, Andrew Hill at the New York hackathon site.”

“Similarly to this, UNICEF requested a way to use mobile reporting for when a school latrine facility stops working or requires repair or even to report if soap for handwashing goes missing. One app that was developed for this is called Fix-A-Pit. The idea is to build a mobile tool to collect data through toilet ID mechanism to identify, track, and resolve problems around latrine maintenance in schools (or other public latrines). Text reports are logged into a database, which then sends a maintenance request to service providers. The maintenance team then reports completion of the issue by sending a text message and closes the ticket. Think of it as a text based 311 for girls school latrines. This is being developed by Tommy Mitchell, Ishita Chattopadhyay, Asher Benjamin, and Ronald Clary.”

The tech hackathon was Part 1 of what John and Michael call the Holy Sh*t Trinity: tech, behavior and design. All of those components need to work together to fix the problems. According to Michael, “Toilet Hackers intends to launch subsequent hackathons that address behavior change, design and reverse hacking which is when developing countries create solutions for developed countries, particularly in areas like infrastructure where they are most likely to leapfrog us.”

Next up is #2 of the trinity– Changing Behaviors. You can fix the tech part, but you also need to change people’s behaviors, or as John says, “It’s kind of like trying to wash your hands with soap, but not water – you need both. If we can’t talk about topics that are shameful there is never going to be a way we are going to solve these things. If we can talk about it, maybe we can fix it.”

Michael explains why the creative part of the trilogy is so important: “When you talk about behavior change… Access to good toilets and regular hand-washing is not exactly the most compelling pitch – it can make someone feel shamed that they don’t have a toilet or are poisoning their community’s water. In the next hack, we’ll tap into all the creatives to tackle this issue and make it fun and engaging– comedians, musicians, creative rebels, graphic designers, street artists. Comedians have already stepped up. Every comedian needs a good sh*t joke – it’s a natural fit.”

They’re talking huge ideas, like the massive toilet installation next to the London Bridge, courtesy of UNILEVER, or the idea of their hack producing a curated museum exhibit for MOMA that goes online, or harnessing hundreds of thousands of tons of collected human waste to power entire villages or cities in India or Rwanda.

Want to be a part of making sanitation sexy and volunteer for the creative hackathon this summer? Want to start your own toilet hacker chapter with the support of John and Michael? Announcements will be made or better yet, you can follow the team on twitter at @toilethackers or on facebook atSanitationforAll.

I’ve already raised my hand to be a part of the creative hackathon – Hope you’ll join me.

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