For sanitation, a “rights-based approach” may be the wrong strategy


When it comes to sanitation, rights are not enough. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic and social rights.


Gordon McGranahan
10 April 2015

A century or more ago, sanitation improvement was the symbol of progressive government in the world’s most rapidly growing cities. In today’s booming urban settlements, however, sanitation often lags other developments, especially when conventional sewers are not affordable.

Neither market-led private enterprise nor government-driven public utilities are well-suited to providing low-cost sanitation, but regulations can also be an unfair and inefficient means of getting poor people to invest in acceptable sanitation.

The UN's recent recognition of the human right to basic sanitation  is very welcome; sewage improvements clearly deserve our most concerted and extraordinary efforts. Still, the same obstacles that prevent markets, public providers and regulations from delivering sanitation improvement are likely to impede a narrowly “rights-based” approach. Moreover, successful demand-led efforts have used different approaches, with good reason.

In principle, a rights-based approach could entail a complete overhaul of countries’ legal and governance systems, as implied by the Handbook on Realising the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation. In practice, however, it is likely to focus on claims-making against those failing in their duty to provide adequate sanitation, including landlords who do not provide tenants with latrines; public utilities refusing service to shacks; local governments blocking provision to unauthorised settlements; law enforcement agencies ignoring sanitary regulations; and perhaps even national or international donors who ignore sanitation while funding less critical services.

In this sort of rights-based approach, NGOs and other activists work with grassroots movements to push national legal systems to support their demands and hold governments accountable.

Less likely under a rights-based approach, however, would be efforts by the residents of deprived communities themselves to organize their own sanitation improvements, work closely with local authorities to produce mutually acceptable solutions, prioritize affordability over acceptability to achieve scale, or use sanitation improvement as a means of achieving stronger communities capable of engaging more effectively with local authorities. Yet this is exactly what successful and well-documented community-led efforts to improve sanitation have done.

Consider the simplified sewers of Karachi, developed through the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), or the communal toilet blocks of Pune and Mumbai, developed through Mahila Milan, SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India (the Alliance).


Flickr/PraveenaSridhar (Some rights reserved)

A communal toilet block in Allahabad, India.

In both cases, the communities created their own organizations, not just to protest against existing conditions, but also to implement real sanitation improvements. In the OPP, local residents created “lane committees” to oversee sewer extensions; in the Alliance, women’s savings groups and other residents organized around communal toilet blocks.

In both instances, residents challenged local governments to contribute to realistic solutions that authorities and citizens could jointly “co-produce”. With OPP, public sector contributions included trunk sewers into which community sewers flowed; with the Alliance the public sector started off very sceptical, but eventually became a significant funder of local toilet blocks.

In both instances, residents worked with sanitation systems widely considered inadequate due to gross mismanagement. OPP struggled to prevent limited sanitation funds from being spent on costly conventional sewers in Karachi, while the Alliance chose a technology that would not even qualify as “improved” in official international statistics, as they are shared, rather than private, facilities.

Both groups of local citizens used their sanitation improvements to gain legitimacy for their settlements, all without putting rights-based claims front and center. Rather than organizing to make demands, they first organized to find and start implementing improvements. Then, instead of demanding solutions from government authorities, they demanded support in coproducing solutions they had developed. Finally, rather than seeking to secure the facilities they desired most, they worked hard to make these more affordable, negotiating also to get contributions from the state.

Does this mean that a narrow focus on rights can never succeed? No. When conventional sewer connections are appropriate and affordable, at least with realistic subsidies, a rights-based approach can be effective. With sufficient political and financial support, engineers can design sewer extensions, accountants can cost them, economists can devise affordable tariffs, and public utilities can roll them out. Activists can then use rights legislation to push for universal coverage.

For most people without adequate sanitation, however, these conventional sewer connections are not an option. Lower cost systems are decentralized, and require users to help operate and maintain them. They create challenges requiring users to organize themselves locally, cooperate with local authorities, prioritize affordability, and use sanitation to gain legitimacy for their settlements.

In particular, these efforts involve several key challenges: collective action, coproduction, affordability, and housing insecurity.  

Bad urban sanitation involves private behaviours with huge public impacts. To put it crudely, your own shit is not the problem; it is other people’s shit, contaminating the local environment, that causes you serious damage. If you improve your facilities, and your neighbours don’t, you and your children still face serious sanitation problems. To overcome this “collective action problem”, as social scientists call it, local residents must organize locally and act collectively, rather than leaving it to individual households to decide independently whether to up-grade.

But even when communities overcome this problem, they can’t do the job alone; they need local government to take responsibility for the ultimate removal and treatment of excreta. The local government may also need to make other contributions. Residents, public utilities and/or local authorities, in other words, must combine forces to “coproduce” sanitation.

Cost, however, is a big problem. Under these conditions, the kind of strict government regulations demanded by some rights activists are more likely to exclude than uplift. Cost, however, is a big problem, since the poor can’t afford good sanitation any more than they can afford adequate food, clothing or shelter. Under these conditions, the kind of strict government regulations demanded by some rights activists are more likely to exclude than uplift. The new standards will be unaffordable for many, and irregularly enforced. The result is likely to be more informality and corruption, not healthier people.

Also, the poorest residents often live in informal settlements where their right to reside is insecure – and doubly insecure if they are tenants – blocking both residents and public agencies from investing in proper sanitation. Sanitation reforms must either address such tenure issues head-on, or find other ways of overcoming the disincentive to invest.

Considering these challenges, a narrowly rights-based approach to sanitation puts too much emphasis on individual rights, enforces too sharp a public/private separation, ignores the sanitation regulations’ exclusionary tendencies, and neglects tenure problems.

Private markets and public plans are already failing hundreds of millions of the poorest urban dwellers. Ironically, the right to basic sanitation could also be poorly served by a narrowly rights-based approach that fails to take these challenges seriously.


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