How much would you pay to have your own toilet: One day’s salary? One week? One month?

By April 1, 2016News

Dr. Piers Clark, Chairman of Isle Utilities, a specialist water consultancy business, recently visited Thrive’s Water and Sanitation Program in Vietnam. Read about his experience below, and on his blog, Notes from Piers.

Heaven and Earth French

In Vietnam the price to have a simple, basic sanitation system installed in your home is around $300. For much of the rural population the average salary is less than $1/day. The maths just doesn’t work. Who would spend a year’s salary on a toilet? The health and hygiene benefits associated with good sanitation are well documented, but aid programmes that have given latrines away have tended to fail spectacularly. Aside from being prohibitively expense, the latrines fall into disrepair or are not used. For a sanitation programme to be effective it needs local buy-in.

The US charity Thrive Networks (formerly East Meets West) is working closely with the Gates Foundation to address this problem. Over the past 3 years they have installed over 170,000 latrines in the homes of some of the poorest people in SE Asia. Their model is awesome. They don’t give away latrines, but instead they create the demand and then supply the need. Drug dealers follow a similar model but are not nearly as nice.

By working with the local Women’s Union they provide engaging education programmes in the local villages. Having created broad general interest, they then visit individual homes to better articulate the precise personal benefits. Where necessary they direct the villager to a source of soft micro-loans that have been established specifically for this programme. The latrine itself is built by trained craftsmen using approved designs. Once the latrine is built there is a $28 rebate, funded by Gates, that the villager can claim. By this time they have a toilet that they ‘own’ in every sense of the word. They also have an aspirational item that their neighbours want to copy.

Today I visited some of the above projects with the Head of Water and Sanitation at Thrive Networks, Jeff Albert. I was there to see first-hand what they have done, and to help them think through their next challenge: how to make this scheme completely self-financing. Due to a last minute change in plans we were joined by Le Ly Hayslip, a 66 year old Vietnamese lady who was the founder of the East Meets West charity some 30+ years ago.

Heaven and earth USLe Ly is a truly astonishing lady. Small, dynamic and incredibly feisty. She started life as a child soldier for the Vietcong and yet went on to become one of the most influential women in the world. A film was made about her life in 1990, directed by Oliver Stone, called Heaven and Earth and staring Tommy Lee Jones. We had a bizarre conversation about how she prefers how she is depicted in the French advertising poster than the US one. Apparently it is more ‘Gone with the Wind’. We spent 4 hours trapped in a minivan travelling south from Hanoi and, aside from numerous film anecdotes, she told one of the dirtiest jokes I have ever heard. I also learnt that Jeff, my host from Thrive, has a 5 second scene as an extra in American Sniper. The 4 hours simply flew by.

The work that the Gates Foundation and Thrive are doing in Vietnam and Cambodia is genuinely ground-breaking. The key has been tapping into the power and influence of the Vietnamese Women’s Union. The ladies we met today were dedicated and persuasive. Nothing was going to get in their way. Like a mother hen protecting her chicks these women were determined to lift their country out of the gutter. They were each younger versions of Le Ly, ready to take on the challenge and take no excuses. Making this important scheme economically viable won’t be easy, but something tells me that if anyone can do it, it will be these Vietnamese women. I am in awe.