How a no-subsidy approach spurred a country’s sanitation coverage

Jar with coins

In November 2014, shortly after joining SNV, I attended my first sanitation triggering activity in Mahottari district [1]. As I approached the village, almost immediately, I understood the extent of the sanitation challenge. On one side of the pathway, three men were defecating, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. A group of pigs followed the men behind, cleaning up their fresh faeces. As we approached the settlement, the stench of faeces wafted out from a school. With no toilet inside the compound, students were ‘doing their business’ out in the open.

The sanitation triggering activity in Mahottari was certainly eventful. It successfully engaged almost the entire village on the topic of sanitation. To conclude the activity, the facilitators raised the critical question: who will build a toilet? The crowd responded enthusiastically: all the gathered men, women, young children, grandmothers, raised their hands. As I was leaving the gathering, I heard some women ask loudly, “what will YOU give us to make the toilets?”

Ending the sanitation subsidy mind-set

Nepal’s national data [2] show that during the 20-year period (1990 to 2010), access to sanitation increased to 46% (from 6% in 1990). In the five years that followed, almost the same level of progress was achieved (as in the previous 20 years). Access jumped to 80%; just before the 2015 earthquake. Amongst other contributing factors, the change in national sanitation policy towards a no-subsidy approach had been a critical factor in this achievement.

Implementing no-subsidy, however, has been no easy task. Used to years of external (non-) government support to build toilets, a subsidy mind-set was deeply ingrained. The successful trialling and adaptation of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) provided a methodology to help change this. Adding local triggering factors, such as the importance of privacy for daughters-in-law, dignity, and safety, CLTS became an effective tool to mobilise community demand and interest for sanitation. Simultaneously addressing misconceptions of the perceived high cost of toilets (which is much higher than actual cost), ensuring the availability of materials, and promoting know-how and services for construction of affordable and quality toilets, helped many of the motivated households to invest in their own toilets.

As evidenced by the women’s call-out, the community in Mahottari harboured similar expectations for subsidy. In much of the terai, this was exacerbated by heavy subsidies being provided to neighbouring communities, across the Indian border. Certainly, if we want a toilet and it is good for everybody, then the government should help us to make it!

From our team I learnt that the difficult work started after sanitation triggering. To end subsidy expectations, as a first step, it was necessary to establish a unified voice from government and local leaders. Simply put, there was NO subsidy. This was followed by intense messaging on the importance of sanitation; through multiple local channels, interest groups, and platforms.

Man plastering roof
Man working on constructing a house

Welcoming the early adopters

One of my favourite messages was the rhyming slogan developed by our colleague, Ram Prakash:

“Baikhari nahi banana, baiphari banana hai”- we don’t want to make beggars (waiting for subsidy), rather we want to make entrepreneurs (that invest in a toilet now for the family’s future well-being and savings in health-care costs).

Perhaps the most interesting observation for me in the drive for a no-subsidy approach has been that early adopters (of making and using toilets) have often belonged to lower income households. The bigger challenge has been with the elites in a community – the eminent teacher, the eminent politician, the eminent businessman with a second house in Kathmandu –  who were waiting for hand-outs and refused to construct a toilet until they were threatened with public humiliation. We witnessed many emphatic speeches of leaders speaking on 'behalf of the poor' who needed subsidy, while hoping themselves for a share of the benefits.

Leaving no one behind through the ‘collective’

There is, of course, no doubt that a part of the population cannot afford the most basic of facilities and services. Around 1.3 million households in Nepal are landless, with a high concentration in the terai. That is why, after it was found that most of the households with the means to construct their toilet had done so, our teams facilitated local WASH Coordination Committees (CC) to engage all stakeholders in collectively finding local sanitation solutions for the landless and extreme poor. The range of solutions has been astonishing – including personal charity, supply of materials by local government, free packages given by ring producers, use of profits by agriculture cooperatives to buy materials, land provided by the local temple and private landowners, etc.

Clarifying expectations, boosting progress

The National Sanitation Hygiene Master Plan (2011) makes provisions for local support mechanisms for the extreme poor. However, from our team’s experience, I have learnt that there is a fine line between subsidy and local support mechanisms. A public announcement on support mechanisms or budget allocation for pro-poor support at any level (provincial, district, village) is quickly perceived as a subsidy. These create expectations and the potential for misuse.

On the other hand, a general sanitation budget allocation supported by a plan for demand creation and follow-up with households with the means to construct their own toilet, minimises the expectation of subsidy. And, a locally led process to identify lagging households, understand their challenges, and find solutions jointly for those unable to make a toilet (including how to access the sanitation budget) creates a sense of community.

We've also witnessed the misuse of local support mechanisms to aid in the well-meaning but misguided political ambitions of aspiring leaders during and following the election period in 2017/18. During the campaign period, many politicians promised to distribute free pans and pipes as a part of their manifesto. As people waited to receive their free materials, progress in the sanitation campaign slowed down. For SNV, this was perhaps most obvious in Bara district. To revive the pace of the sanitation campaign, SNV colleagues and WASH sector stakeholders intensively engaged in a process of political triggering, i.e., to get all local/district leaders to stop talking about providing support. As this became clear, people stopped waiting for subsidy and got on with making their own toilets.

On 13 September 2019, Bara achieved open-defecation-free (ODF) status.

[1] Mahottari district lies in the low-lying, southern terai belt of the country
[2] 8th annual plan, NMIP 2014, DWSSM data

Photos: (Banner): Josh Appel on Unsplash | (Toilet construction photos): SNV/ Nico Hertweck