Water and sanitation in India’s slums: What corporate best practices can teach the development community

A couple of years back I met a lady in a slum in Delhi. She had recently taken out a loan for a water and sanitation project: constructing a toilet. She told me that her family had lived in the same slum for nearly 20 years but had never thought of building a toilet in their home. This made me curious, and I became eager to understand why after so many years of using community toilets or practicing open defecation, she’d finally decided to invest in a toilet of her own. Her response was simple. “No girl is willing to marry my son unless I have a toilet in my house, so this has made my son more eligible.”

Water and sanitation: The challenge is less in explaining their value than in understanding why they are (or aren’t) prioritized

During my five years at the foundation, I’ve come across numerous training manuals that have been created with the objective of educating communities and spreading awareness about why toilets are important. While they cover the health and hygiene aspects of water and sanitation fairly well, most do not highlight the social and cultural issues that underlie decision making and behavior change.

In the mainstream corporate world, tactics like listening to your customers, understanding their behavior, tailoring your message, creating brand loyalty and soliciting feedback are standard practice. In the development space, those approaches are not as common. In fact, I’ve more than once heard statements like, “Of course a toilet is good for them. It will improve their health and productivity.”

Those of us working in development have to dig deeper. We need to understand, in detail, how and why someone who has never used a toilet in their lives would pay every day to use one. We need to ask (and answer) the question, why on earth would a family spend INR 10,000 (US $180) to construct one when their average monthly income is only INR 3,000 (US $54)?

Why is this sort of inquiry so important? Because until we understand the motivational nuances at play, we may build some toilets, but we’ll miss the real target: Changed behaviors and improved health.

Learn more about our work in water and sanitation. Read more posts by Urvashi Prasad.