Writing a thesis is a lot like going through a break-up. It’s painful and you feel extremely isolated during the writing process. But you come out of the experience a wiser person, enlightened and ready to take on the world again. At least I hope that’s how you feel.

In order to combat the uncertainty of the whole process, this past week I challenged myself to find one exciting thing about my research each day. I hoped using optimism would remind me why I opted for this difficult life lesson as opposed to resenting myself for falling in love with sanitation and hygiene. Although I’m finding it difficult not to resent myself as I drag the bag of books behind me, I’m starting to love these new discoveries. On Thursday, I found an incredible gap in the literature on grassroots sanitation, which essentially revolutionizes my research – there is little to no coordination between nonprofits and governments when developing sanitation infrastructure.

Governments, particularly those in developing countries, have a bad reputation as being inept, inefficient, and corrupt. I would agree with these points in most situations but as it stands, governments are the only institution that can provide long-term sanitation infrastructure for their country. Throughout the developed world, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, government infrastructure saves lives each time a tap is turned on or a toilet is flushed. Governments have created acts and policies to regulate waste treatment and allocated federal funds to build infrastructure.

In England, for example, the Metropolis Water Act required the regulation of water suppliers in London and set the first standards on water quality. At the same time, legislation was passed for mandatory water inspection and the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers brought sewage and drainage systems to urban London. Similar policies and institutions brought about public health changes in European countries and economically developed nations, like Japan.

Map of Cholera Outbreak in London

Map of Cholera Outbreak in London

But over a century later we live in a different world – government priorities have shifted and nonprofits and NGOs have an equal, if not greater, presence than the government in certain parts of the world. Often times these nonprofits provide a great deal of services to the local community, especially in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector. The issue with these services is that they are often short-term or band-aid solutions for what has proven to be a problem that demands preventive solutions. Oral Rehydration Salts, pit latrines, chlorine tablets, and water pumps can do incredible things for people without access to clean water or sanitation facilities. But they treat the problem or patient, rather than preventing a problem from occurring in the first place. At the end of the day, sanitation infrastructure and sustainable waste disposal solutions are necessary to solving the sanitation crisis.

This solution doesn’t need to come from one institution nor do I expect that it will. Rather, nonprofits should begin to work directly with local governments, building sanitation infrastructure and developing systems in conjunction with one another. Often nonprofits have short-term projects or simply bring aid into communities. On the other hand, governments search for longer-term projects, like infrastructure development but they lack the necessary resources to begin a project. If both institutions began to coordinate, with nonprofits beginning the initial phases of infrastructure development then transitioning to government regulation and control, these projects would be much more likely to succeed. Coordination between nonprofits and governments, allocation of resources, and smooth transitions from nonprofits to government workers are what will ultimately determine the success of sanitation infrastructure projects.

I guess I’m okay with the uncertainty of becoming a sanitation guru by the end of my thesis if I get to come up with ridiculous theories for solving the sanitation crisis in the process. 

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