May 25, 2015
This week, as you may know, the Secretariat of the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing is in Dakar, Senegal for AfricaSan. We arrived in Dakar early Sunday morning, and after a quick nap, I ventured out to explore the city as it went through its morning rituals. Wandering through narrow, dusty streets I came upon a small stand where a woman sold water from a pipe by the jugful. A line of cheap plastic containers held people’s places in line as they waited in the shade for their turn. This image fresh in my mind, I can’t help but think of the irony that tonight the the sound of a bubbling fountain near a swimming pool is providing the soundtrack to my evening as I write this blog on my hotel’s outdoor patio. This very topic—inequality was indeed a central theme today, at the opening sessions of AfricaSan.
The morning began with a session on the current status of sanitation and hygiene in Africa. During this session, Sanjay Wijesekera, the Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene at UNICEF spoke on the challenges that have inhibited African countries as they have sought to achieve of the sanitation targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As he pointed out, one of the greatest challenges that we must address as we move from the MDGs towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that of inequality. When we look at progress as it pertains to access to sanitation, the disparities are masked in regional averages. These disparities aren’t only between countries, either. They also are reflected in regions, and at the subnational level. Likewise, these disparities aren’t only in access to sanitation, but access to hygiene as well. If we hope to achieve the goals articulated in the draft SDGs, we must ensure that those most in need of sanitation and hygiene are those who gain access to these services in the post-2015 era.
However, as we all know, service delivery is only part of the challenge. For the health benefits of hygiene to be realized, the behavior of handwashing must be practiced routinely at critical times. It is for this reason that in the afternoon we hosted our first regional Handwashing Think Tank. This event, which was packed despite the late hour, featured three “big ideas” in handwashing: emotional motivators, behavioral settings, and the science of habit. After the presentations, we engaged with the audience in a rich and energetic dialogue about translating these big ideas into practice. This was articulated both in terms of developing behavior change programs, and how to bring the latest thinking into existing program design, but also in terms of modifying the concepts presented to fit specific contexts. We took extensive notes, and look forward to sharing our learnings with you in a more formal way in the coming weeks.
A number of participants in our Think Tank articulated that it would take them a few days to digest the rich content that we discussed. I think the same is true for me. It is clearer than ever that we are at a critical juncture within development. The SDGs provide a great opportunity to bring forth the progress that we know is needed if we want to make a dent on global poverty, preventable deaths, and inequality. However, translating our knowledge about how to go about doing so into action still remains difficult. One way may be using new voices to reach those who might evade conventional behavior change messaging. It was great to see one of our partners, Unilever, announce that they are engaging Senegal singer, businessman and politician Youssou N’dour as a handwashing champion, bringing messages about handwashing with soap to his millions of fans. You can read more about this announcement here.
I am hopeful that as we go into the next two days these important dialogues will continue and we will all be better equipped to address these challenges together.
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