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Leapfrogging or Bucking the Trend? Sanitation in Developing Countries

November 30, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Efforts to improve the access to sanitation facilities in developing countries are falling behind as the supply is not keeping pace with the growing population, a new report from the UK charity Water Aid says. This situation is the result of lack of governments’ funding who are skeptical to invest in sanitation projects. As the situation is worsening over years (the number of people with no access to sanitation facilities has increase from 2.5bn in 2006 to 2.5bn in 2008) the private sectors is stepping into the sectors, offering innovative alternatives.

The increasing role played by the private sector in this field and the solutions proposed counter the fundamental idea that late comers, i.e. countries relatively underdeveloped, have the advantage to be able to copy the solutions to problems which have already been fixed in developed countries. If you are a late comer, so the argument goes, you can leapfrog the stages of development because you can look at how other have fixed that problem, without going through a process of trial and error. Think about the sector of telecommunications: if you are a late comer you do not have to build an infrastructure for fixed communication because you know that mobile phones are much more efficient and cheaper. However, the experiences in the sanitation sector undermine this idea of the unilinearity and replicability of the process of development. The growing responsibility of the private sector and the types of solutions which are designed point to the fact that the specificity of the context dictates different development paths.

Firstly, the provision of early sanitation services in Europe has been an almost exclusive responsibility of governments. However, given the dire results achieved so far, some of the main actors in the sector argue that governments should move away from direct service provision to promoting demand for sanitation, promoting behavior change and supporting system of local supply and management of human waste. In other words, the role of the governments should be radically different from what has been so far and what has been in European countries.

Secondly, as the private sector steps in, it designs solutions which rests on fundamentally different principles. PeePoople and Sanergy are two social enterprises which are trying to tackle the problem of sanitation in the urban slums of Nairobi. They propose different products: the former markets and distributes a plastic bag called peepoople which substitute toilets and is able to inactivate pathogens within 2-4 weeks; the second franchises toilets in which the waste is deposited in air-tight containers. However, they have something in common: both solutions cut the traditional link between water and sanitation. Such proposition stems from the observation that is increasingly difficult to access water in crowded urban slums and departs radically from the traditional European approach which hinges upon the ready availability of water to offer sanitation solutions.

In sum if for some the process of development is best captured by the idea of leapfrogging, the experience in the sanitation sector suggests that the idea of  bucking the trend might do a better job at describing the process of development.

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