Toilet uptake August 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
Wired has an interesting little piece on the problem of getting people in the developing world to adopt new toilet designs. In some places, sanitation is somewhat primitive and human waste finds its way easily into major water systems, where it can cause the spread of dangerous diseases. Where sanitation infrastructure is not available, the path to better sanitation involves the provision of toilets, perhaps of the composting variety.
Mushfiq Mobarak, working with the Gates Foundation, notes that technical solutions to the problem are well known. The main problem lies in getting people to adopt the toilets. For one thing, the cost of new toilets would usually be borne by the individuals purchasing them, whereas the payoff–in the form of freedom from epidemic disease–accrues to the whole community. In that situation, a person might prefer to wait for the neighbors to buy the toilets, at which point he would reap the rewards for free:
“Jointly, we’re better off adopting, but we’re all making decisions individually,” Mobarak said. From an individual perspective, “What I’d really like is for everyone else to adopt, but not me. And everyone will be thinking this way.”
In economic terms, this situation is known as a positive externality, a benefit realized in a transaction by someone who is not paying for it. In many cases, such transactions will simply not occur because the people involved would rather wait for others to pay to produce the benefit.
One solution would be to simply have the price of the toilets subsidized by the community, e.g., through tax revenue. However, potential purchasers might still prefer to spend the remaining purchase cost on something else that has a higher priority in their view. That might be education, electricity, rent, or some other good. In economic terms, these other possibilities are known as opportunity costs, that is, other options that are sacrificed when one option is pursued.
Another solution would be to “enlarge the pie”, that is, to provide some additional benefit with the toilet that would accrue to the purchaser alone and would make up for the externality or opportunity costs. The article describes how this was done for another design, that being an efficient cook stove. Like a toilet, a stove produces pollution that can be harmful to the whole community. So, the purchaser of an efficient stove is providing a benefit for the community that the community does not pay for. To overcome the problem of this positive externality, the designers included a novel feature in their cook stove design:
That’s now being accomplished by giving the stoves power-generating functionality, with embedded USB ports for charging devices, said Mobarak.
The heat from the stove can be used to power a small generator, useful for charging gadgets like cell phones, which are widespread in places like Bangladesh where access to electricity is otherwise unreliable.
So, then, what individual benefit could a toilet provide to its owners alone? Well, it could save its owners from having to defecate in public, a practice that not unusual in many places in South Asia:
Apart from making the new toilets as inexpensive as possible, said Fisher [co-founder of KickStart], the key is making them a social norm and object of aspiration, and making pit latrines and in-the-open defecation an object of community opprobrium.
In other words, the solution lies not in changing the design of the toilet but in changing the social norms of the community.
There is a tension inherent in this approach. Making something an “object of aspiration” means, in economic parlance again, making it a positional good, that is, something whose value depends on how it compares with other things like it. Rarity is often key to the value of such goods. For example, an antique car is valuable in part because there are not many comparable cars around. A Model T would not be so valuable (or “aspirational”) if everyone had one. Likewise, a toilet can be aspirational only if they are relatively rare. Yet, the benefit of sanitation accrues only if the toilets are common.
It seems like the most effective strategy left is that of stigmatizing the lack of a toilet. Yet, a punitive approach (“community opprobrium”) promises to be difficult and unappealing. Instead, it might be an idea to adapt the aspirational approach: Offer the toilets in a range of designs, from the simplest and cheapest to the fanciest and most expensive. The fancier toilets would be the rare, aspirational items, with the simpler, cheaper ones serving as “gateway” loos. The aspirational benefit of the different toilet designs could be realized by their owners when guests in the house have to use the owner’s WC and can admire the toilet there. A somewhat similar situation exists in consumer contexts in countries like Japan.
Of course, what constitutes a fancier toilet would take some time and effort to determine. And tasteful advertising would be necessary too. My point is simply that the introduction of toilets into new settings requires us to consider the whole social structure of that setting which, in this case, might cause us to reconsider whether or not one toilet is really the whole answer.