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Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste (my reading notes)

Back in 2014, I corresponded with Dr. Diane Coffey (at the time, completing her PhD at Princeton) and discussed some of her work with Dr. Dean Spears (as well as some of my own work) on behavioural approaches to understanding sanitation governance. I was particularly puzzled by the fact that they had found that notions of purity and caste affected how rural people in Northern India ended up NOT using latrines even if they were available. This finding is puzzling because it goes against conventional wisdom in the sanitation governance community that “if you bring them, they will come”. That is, the assumption is that if you build latrines, people will use them. As Coffey and Spear show, this isn’t always the case.

public latrine (BORDA) in a slum near Bangalore

Photo credit: SuSanA (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance) on Flickr, CC-licensed

Coffey and Spears’ work is wonderful and now that they’ve synthesized the many years of research they’ve spent understanding sanitation in rural India, it’s really an absolute pleasure to read their cumulative insights from years on the field studying which factors drive the lack of adoption of latrines in the rural context of a country which faces huge rates of open defecation: India. I recently found their book on Amazon, and asked my brother to purchase it for me and send it (it doesn’t ship to Aguascalientes, Mexico). Coffey and Spears’ book, “Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste” has already won an award in India, but I think the policy community should take note of their work and heed the excellent, empirically-based advice they offer in their book.

Coffey and Spears’ Where India Goes is a perfect example of “updating your priors”. To be perfectly honest, up to the point where I read Diane and Dean’s work, I was 100% convinced that the only way to change behaviour in regards to open defecation in just about every single country in the world was the use of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). Given my own work on urban sanitation, I thought that insights I had gained on adoption of toilets in urban contexts were basically translatable to the rural and peri-urban areas. This is, as Coffey and Spears show, not always the case. Each region has particular contextual elements that make creating policy prescriptions that are generalizable almost impossible. Thus trying to transfer some of these policy ideas from one place to another without taking into account contextual differences is a misguided strategy, at best.

Coffey and Spears wrote a compelling, insightful, captivating and delightful book where they summarized many years of their research work, where they actually took an unusual step: they moved to India and founded a non-governmental organisation. In doing so, Coffey and Spears gained insights that were both qualitative and quantitative. Experimental, community-based interventions and impact evaluations were combined with ethnographic observation and qualitative approaches, including in-depth interviews. The degree to which Coffey and Spears were able to insert themselves into the communities they studied in rural northern India gave them unique insights into the problem of open defecation and the factors that drive it, and unfettered access to communities and individuals that engage in this kind of behaviour.

As someone who has studied sanitation for over a decade, I always held a strong belief that latrine access was a key hindering factor of total sanitation. Coffey and Spears make a compelling, empirically-proven, theoretically-informed argument: at best, a latrine construction programme is insufficient to end open defecation. While their work is focused on India, Coffey and Spears make excellent points as to why and how we can translate what they found and which lessons we can draw from their research to apply them to other contexts.

Coffey and Spears definitely make a fantastic job of translating their scholarly research into an understandable and easily digestible book. That Coffey and Spears went for a popular press instead of waiting for two years with an academic/university press also speaks to urgency. If I were in their shoes, knowing that my work is dispelling several myths on sanitation, would I wait for 2 years until my scholarly book is published? Probably not, I’d probably do the same and go for a popular press like Harper Collins.

For someone like me who studied policy sciences, Coffey and Spears offer excellent policy wisdom. As I have argued before, if you look at Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram’s work (Policy Design for Democracy, Behavioural Assumptions of Policy Tools, Systematically Pinching Ideas, Social Construction of Target Populations, etc.), policy design needs to take into account specific target populations’ characteristics. Much work on sanitation is pushed by international institutions and development/aid organizations, without regard for local context. This is problematic because not every single community either rural or urban can engage in CLTS and its effectiveness can vary depending on context.

Coffey and Spears make excellent discussions on the global-local connection particularly criticizing the way in which some international institutions ad development agencies want to impose CLTS. These institutions’ strategies are often driven by incorrect or inaccurate or badly collected and treated statistical data. I’ve always been skeptical of national-level and globally-reported statistics because government agencies have tricky definitions. For CONAGUA, the Mexican water agency, access to sewerage means “your house has a pipeline that connects outside of your home“. his figure (access to sewerage) doesn’t take into account that said pipeline can be clogged or unusable. That toilets may not actually work.

This book really changed the way in which I think about rural sanitation in India, and generally speaking, made me rethink the way in which I think about global sanitation and the role of CLTS in improving toilet access, usage and improvement of societal conditions and welfare. I’d recommend it any day of the week for anybody interested in international development, sanitation and informality.

DISCLOSURE: I buy all my books. This was also the case of this book. Nobody gave it to me so I could read it and review it. Everything I say in this blog post is my own opinion.

Posted in academia.

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