Access to latrines in rural areas of Bangladesh is less than 15 per cent. Many international agencies and non-governmental organisations have been working to improve environmental sanitation by constructing latrines and toilets with subsidies provided at different rates.
But even after three decades of such efforts it is difficult to find 100 villages from amongst nearly 85,000 that are totally sanitised and free from open defecation. Success has generally been measured on the basis of the number of latrines constructed within a given period of time instead of the extent of open defecation, which in most cases has continued unabated.
A new approach being pioneered by the author (Dr Kamal Kar, Social and Participatory Development Consultant from Calcutta, India) with Village Education Resource Centre (VERC), Water Aid in Bangladesh and other agencies concentrates on empowering local people to analyse the extent and risk of environmental pollution caused by open defecation, and to construct toilets without any external subsidies. This community-led effort has had a huge impact. Open defecation has been completely stopped by the community in more than 400 villages in Bangladesh, and the methodology is now being adopted in parts of India and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.
This new empowering approach towards the provision of services and infrastructure has serious policy implications for other such programmes. Firstly, financial subsidies from agencies should be used to facilitate and enhance community understanding of the risks of open defecation and to train community catalysts that can spread the programme, rather than being used to invest in material and physical infrastructure. Secondly, agencies must employ a flexible approach in working with communities in order to allow the latter to take the lead in addressing problems in their own way, instead of dictating practices.
Thirdly, success must be measured on the basis of the final impact (elimination of open defecation) instead of the final output (construction of toilets of externally prescribed designs). This new approach demonstrates the impact a simple facilitative process can have on changing age-old practices, where the onus for progress is placed almost entirely on the community.