Investing in Toilets Isn't Sexy, But It Could Help Save the World

A toilet with the sign today 2000 kids are dying for a toilet placed in front of the Arc de Triomphe

I run a small non-profit in Sierra Leone that aims to improve the lives of children by building schools for them to attend. Recently, representatives from a grant organization told me point-blank that they could not see how building schools for children promotes their human rights. I did not receive the grant, and that experience got me thinking of how donor interests transform the charitable purpose of many nonprofits.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. Many small non-profits need donor funds to exist, which compels them to shape their grant requests to meet donor conditions rather than prioritize the actual needs in the places they work. As a result, money is wasted on issues or places that don’t need it, merely because of donors' specific interests. A more pragmatic solution would be to allow grassroots organizations and the people they serve to determine the allocation of donor funds.

One of the schools the Jeneba Project is constructing in Sierra Leone

An engaging TED Talk by Rose George illustrates the funding problems faced by much of the non-profit world. George's presentation is highlighted by an astonishing fact: 2.5 billion people in the world don't have access to sanitary toilets. Because of this, 25% of the girls in India drop out of school. However, it can be difficult to convince donors that they should improve girls' education by building toilets. To make matters worse, many grant organizations clearly state that their funds cannot go towards infrastructure or administration.

It makes sense that donors would think that girls are dropping out of school for lack of school fees, but those working in the community understand that those girls will not stay in a school if they are hungry or if they attend a school that is unsanitary or does not have paid teachers. So, an organization that pays for girls' school fees but does not provide them with sanitary toilets fails to achieve its goals. When donors insist on determining the allocation of non-profits' funds, communities sometimes cannot receive the aid they need.

In another TED Talk, the Australian architect Paul Pholeros describes what happens when non-profits tailor solutions to fit the community they are working with. Pholeros set out with the challenge of improving the health conditions for the members of a small Aboriginal community in South Australia, many of whom suffered from infectious diseases. With no money and six months to complete their task, Pholeros and his team set out to find a way to stop people from getting sick.

At the end of their project, the team came up with nine healthy living practices, such as washing, nutrition, and temperature. The team then concluded that the community needed a solution that addressed the root causes of their illnesses. Their answer? Improve the community's living environments by building bathrooms and showers in their homes. A decade after Pholeros and his team set out on their mission, there was a 40% reduction in the illnesses that could be attributed to a poor living environments.

According to Paul, what was most important about his team's solution is that it focused on the members of the community and their actual needs. The idea of a human-centered design is to avoid generic solutions applied on the premise that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and concentrate on community-customized solutions that address problems on a case-by-case basis.

Pholeros' team also put this principle into practice when they were invited to a small village of 600 people in Nepal to build two toilets for two families. While they were there, they realized that women were inhaling smoke produced by the village's method of cooking. Consequently, the leading cause of illness and death in the region was respiratory failure. Paul and his team solved this problem by simply taking the human and animal waste in the village and extracting methane gas to provide smokeless fuel for cooking.

The fact of the matter is, as non-profit organizations multiply, there is a need to examine funding criteria and accountability. However, non-profits should be accountable to the communities they seek to aid, not to donors as has traditionally been the case. By getting beneficiaries involved in allocating the funds raised on their behalf, organizations can determine pragmatic solutions to the problems facing each community, rather than simply complying with grant descriptions that only guarantee quick fixes to complex problems.