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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Oh, shit! Mobile phones more common than toilets

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For some reason, several of the sanitation-related articles I' ve read in the past few months have had the same statistic: on the planet today, there are more mobile phones than toilets! We need to make toilets like the smart phones, says the Copenhagen Consensus report—we need to make everyone want one!

Granted, sanitation is a huge issue. In many urban places, infrastructure for managing human waste is either woefully inadequate or completely absent, causing people to make do with eliminating in rivers, on streets, in open drains, or in infamous " flying toilets" —plastic bags thrown out into the street.

In places like China, Tanzania, Kenya, Bangladesh, and India, waste is often handled by other humans with limited or no protection, leaving them at risk for a plethora of diseases and conditions and subjecting them to intense social stigma. An estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to safe sanitation, and over 1.1 billion people defecate in the open. This quantity of human waste causes an enormous burden of disease and death on the global population.

But frequently, when bloggers and journalists write about the poor sanitation coverage in many developing countries, the comparison to mobile phones is made, as if the free market that creates and maintains a market for mobile phones will do the same for toilets, if we try hard enough. I' m not certain whey we ended up with this cell phone and toilet comparison. Maybe because we keep dropping our phones into toilets.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to suggest five reasons why toilets are not like cell phones.

1) One's a necessity, and the other is a nicety

Perhaps the reason that this comes up all the time is that from over here, mobile phones are seen as a nicety, whereas toilets are a necessity. We remember a time without mobile phones, right? We survived. But toilets—geeze, you need those. Right? And toilets are so low-tech. Isn't it so strange and quirky that people have mobile phones but not toilets? (Note the subtext: weird foreigners with stupid priorities.)

However, think about people's priorities. Mobile phones let you do business. People use mobile phones to let each other know the water tank prices so their relative the next village over doesn't get ripped off. They use it for transferring funds and banking. Farmers can use it to find the best price for their goods.

Toilets, on the other hand, have an indirect benefit. It's hard to point out to a community that they saved money this year, because they built toilets and didn't get sick. And to see real health effects, everyone in the community needs to have a toilet. One family without a toilet puts the whole community at risk.

So if you were in a developing context, which would you pick?

2) One people have control over, and it works

To over-simplify it a bit, you can have two kinds of toilets: self-managing, decentralized sanitation systems or state managed systems. There are also some NGO managed systems, but those are much more rare. The self-managed systems, such as composting toilets, pit latrines, or any other system that relies on the family or individual to directly manage the waste of their latrine, are often the ones that end up breaking down or not being maintained because maintenance can be expensive in terms of time and money.

State-managed systems, on the other hand, rely on the government to be in charge of the maintenance of the infrastructure that takes the waste away and (hopefully) do something with it that' s slightly better than dumping it in your backyard.

This is what most developed countries have. In many countries, the state is not managing these systems. If someone does choose to pay for a toilet, they must constantly invest to maintain the system, with time (as in scooping out a composting toilet) or money (like hiring a service to pump your tank). And this is for something that, as mentioned in #1, there is not necessarily an evident benefit.

Mobile phones, on the other hand, you can buy from your local shop owner and have a nicely functioning device with a system that is maintained by a series of entrepreneurs and corporations. You just have to put money in the system occasionally, which is a pretty simple process. You can charge your phone with as much money as you want or have. It is a flexible, fluid investment.

While in some countries, charging phone batteries can be difficult due to irregular access to electricity, people are more willing to put in the extra effort. And if they choose not to maintain their phone, they can pick it up a few months later with no ill consequences. You can't ignore a pit latrine for months.

3) One of these is more important to women

Toilets are more important to women. The social costs of being seen while eliminating for a man are far, far lower than for a woman.

In most cultures, men are the primary earners. Mobile phones are becoming a necessity for the acquisition of not only economic capital, but social capital as well (such as making friends or creating a network of customers).

In many countries, women are still associated with the household (where the hypothetical toilet would be). In these contexts, then, mobile phones support male roles; toilets are a more feminine issue. Given that men still usually control financial flows, men are going to be more likely to spend money on a cell phone than a toilet.

4) One of these items deals with shit

With the possible exception of Japan, people aren't into toilets much as a commodity item. It's a place where we perform one of our most taboo bodily functions. Smart phones, on the other hand, you can pull out of your pocket—show your friends. Look up where you saw that one actress. Find directions. Play games. Distract a two year old. Smart phones are all about active utility.

Toilets tend to have a much more passive utility—they don't really do anything awesome. But toilets are awesome—they make solid waste disappear so we don't ingest as much of it. It means I don't have to have a smelly neighbourhood.

But again, that's a passive utility. It's a prevention mechanism. We're glad it happens, but we (generally) don't get excited about it.

Smart phones you get excited over and show your friends. Toilets are about concealing a body function that we're incredibly ashamed of.

5) The world does not need as many toilets as cell phones

Think about it. Yes, there are more cell phones than toilets, but how many individuals need their own personal toilet? Unlike cell phones, which are mostly personal items, toilets are generally shared.

Mobile phones often need to be with you for them to be of use, limiting the number of users a single mobile phone can have—a mobile isn't mobile unless you can take it with you.

Toilets, on the other hand, can be used by dozens of people. Yes, some articles compare mobile phone coverage with toilet coverage, which is a far better way to talk about it, but others cite raw numbers.

So yes, there are other reasons that cell phones are not like toilets. (Only one of them is supposed to be sat on.) It's still a tragic statistic, especially when you discuss it in terms of coverage and not just numbers. But making this comparison threatens people to try to find solutions in the realm of cell phones.

These are not the same problem. Cell phones have found success in Africa in great part because of market deregulation, but given that toilets often have little direct benefit, are gendered problems, deal with human shit, and require an extensive cleaning process, will the free market really tackle the sanitation problem?

Toilets have an indirect benefit. It's hard to point out to a community that they saved money this year, because they built toilets and didn't get sick.

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The ancient Romans had sanitation figured out, but were a bit low on privacy. Photo by Fubar Obfusco (en.wiki) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The ancient Romans had sanitation figured out, but were a bit low on privacy. Photo by Fubar Obfusco (en.wiki) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.