Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet. The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at times– a must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.
Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river. Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.
While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience. Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.
Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.
When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets. Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets. Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore. However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.
Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas, Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India. Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation? After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?
Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film. In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.
Enter Arvind Singhal. He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change. A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested. The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS. At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents. Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.
Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum. Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal. Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network. Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge. Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy. And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context. This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.
So could this approach work for toilets? The answer is “maybe”.
The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well. One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world. You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.
The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out. Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge. So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise. And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.
And that stinks. Literally.