I am sure most people believe the world is going to end with Armageddon or in a raging fireball, an explosion or series of explosions that will obliterate everything. I, on the other hand, have sometimes thought the ending would come with everyone drowning in a universal cesspit, a tsunami of shit. A small preview is available.
A man in Sleng, a rural village in Cambodia has just won a prize for producing the most excrement! Amid much laughter, all eyes turn to the middle-aged farmer sitting cross-legged in front of the village hall. Not cracking a smile, he does a little victory dance without getting to his feet. "I'm not ashamed," he says. But his face suggests otherwise. This is precisely the impact that the sanitation marketing team from International Development Enterprises (IDE) were hoping they would have. Cambodians' toilet habits are causing serious problems - and gently suggesting changes has not worked. Most of this small south-east Asian country's people live in rural areas - and only one in five of them have access to a toilet. In fact, people are twice as likely to have a mobile phone. The consequences are predictable. Poor sanitation causes illnesses that kill more than ten thousand Cambodians every year - most of them young children. The economic costs are high as well. Days off sick and time searching for somewhere to go to the toilet reduce earnings and productivity - and families spend hard-earned income on healthcare which is frequently of dubious quality.
Well-meaning development organizations have tried giving toilets away. They frequently come back a few months later to find them being used as storage rooms or animal shelters, with the family defecating in the open as before.
In a presentation in Sleng, half stand-up comedy, half sanitation dialogue, the villagers are told they’re surrounded with their own excrement, told in no uncertain terms that they are living among their own filth, more than a hundred tonnes a year. “It’s like a mountain,” the presenter said. “Imagine if it rained and that mountain fell into the river. You'd be washing and bathing in your own excrement.” Before the presentation, only two of more than 40 houses in Sleng had a toilet. But in the the end there was a rush to buy one for $30 a piece, easily installed and ready for immediate use. The overall idea is to move away from the traditional model of aid - and towards a solution which brings both economic and health benefits. IDE were hoping that ten thousand easy latrines would be sold within 18 months. They passed that target with several months to spare - suggesting that it may indeed be possible to reposition the toilet as a status symbol to match the mobile phone and motorbike.
As well as the benefits to entrepreneurs, it reasons that if people can see a business opportunity in selling low-cost toilets, they should be able to spread sanitation far more efficiently than aid organisations ever could. With this approach showing such promise in Cambodia, other countries are already showing an interest.
Shame marketing may soon become a global phenomenon.