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Reinventing the silver bullet

The biggest news this week in the world of water and sanitation was undoubtedly the announcement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) that it will be investing in the reinvention of the toilet. It doesn’t happen often that sanitation even makes it to Dutch newspapers. Whereas it was widely lauded, also points of critique were being heard, above all that it would be investing in the reinventing of the wheel (see some of the comments on the blog of the BMGF) or that it may become a new search for a new hardware silver bullet.

As a non-native speaker, I was wondering where the term silver bullet actually comes from. According to Wikipedia a silver bullet point is the only way to kill a werewolf. But, its main use comes from a book on software engineering (so it should be known to Bill Gates), with that title whose main argument is that “there is no single development, in either technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order of magnitude [tenfold] improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity….”we cannot expect ever to see two-fold gains every two years in software development, like there is in hardware development”. Just as werewolves, silver bullets are mainly a product of fantasy.

So, is the Foundation going to reinvent the wheel, to chase a silver bullet, or to reinvent the silver bullet?

Looking at the description of what the new toilet should look like, it seems indeed the Foundation may encourage reinventing the wheel, as the description coincides with the various types of EcoSan, composting toilets, or even vacuum toilets all of which already exist. But we also know that these types of toilets have hardly been silver bullets. In spite of all the apparent benefits (less capital intensive infrastructure, less water use, reuse of waste for fertilizers, etc), their uptake has been relatively slow. A range of logistical, economic, cultural, programmatic and institutional factors need to be in place for such toilets to be accepted and to work. The toilet can be likened to be just one bullet in a whole bombardment of actions against the poor sanitary situations in many places. In that sense it is heartening to see that the reinvention of the toilet is but one of the activities the BMGF will focus on to address this problem, as it reports also grants being directed to all those other critical factors as capacity development, policy advocacy, handwashing etc. I sincerely hope that these various activities are linked together, to avoid the silver bullet syndrome. What about the broader WASH sector? In all fairness, everyone in the WASH sectors seems to have his or her own hobby silver bullets. The one that seems to be popular these days is the economic one, promoted by the Sanitation and Water for All initiative. It goes more or less as follows: if we can convince Ministers of Finance that for every dollar invested in sanitation, there are some nine dollars to be gained, they will indeed increase investment in sanitation towards reaching the MDGs. This reasoning is fundamentally flawed. As my dad taught me, if a return on investment sounds too good to be true, it probably is (as anyone having an IceSave account probably can attest to). Once you start reducing the benefits because of the number of toilets not being used after a few years, and increase the costs because of the money needed to go into costs of supporting investments (for example in research and development, policy development, hygiene promotion etc) the ratio will be less positive. This argument also assumes that Ministers of Finance make rational decisions on investments, comparing the economic return on investment of all the public services they need to provide for, and then choose water and sanitation. Although I cannot claim to have any experience in public financing, I can imagine that budgets are not set in such a way. Probably, past spending capacity, long-term budget commitments, possibilities to obtain funds from other investors and tens of other factors play an as important role in budget setting. And even if Ministers of Finance would increase budget commitments to WASH, there will be a zillion other factors that determine whether this translates in increased access to sustainable WASH services. This is not to say that the advocacy effort of SWA is not important. We just need to be clear about the expected impact of the economic argument for investing in WASH. That brings me also to IRC’s own blind spot: our silver bullet is that there are no silver bullets. “There are no silver bullets for complex WASH issues” is the mantra heard in the corridors of our office, as well as in our conference presentations and publications. I immediately plead guilty of dismissing initiatives focused on a specific part of the problem as people chasing silver bullets, as I have just done in the previous paragraph. Instead, we claim that the solutions lie in service delivery approaches, which require systemic changes at institutional levels and in the various aspects of service delivery, i.e. attacking at several fronts at the same time, to stay in the shooting metaphors. And then we are not talking about three or four fronts, or even ten, but probably closer to thirty. That may be conceptually all very nice, but then where do you start? If you start working on one specific issue – financing or spare part supply chains or promotion of private operators – there is a risk of loosing track of the whole picture. And working on thirty fronts at the same time may just be overwhelming, even if efforts are combined with all other sector stakeholders. In reality, the combination of the two should happen – and often this does happen indeed. Dismissing the silver bullet to the realm of fantasy doesn’t that one cannot or should not work on specific parts of the problems. It does mean accepting that by addressing a specific part of the problem no step-wise improvement in WASH services can be expected, but more likely only a relatively small change. That is unfortunately the inconvenient truth. And in that, sometimes one shouldn’t shy away from reinventing the wheel to move forward as reinventing the centuries old rope pump in Nicaragua has shown.


One comment on “Reinventing the silver bullet

  1. […] recent announcement that it wanted to “reinvent the toilet” was understandably met with cautious scepticism by some in the sector. But the text is now online of a more detailed speech where the […]

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