“Fecal slush management”—three words I never thought I would say, let alone discuss for four intensive days. I had just returned from Cambodia, where I was part of a Penn delegation of students, faculty and staff engaged in due diligence on the Lipman Prize finalists. This is the inaugural year for the prize, which is given to an organization engaged in social change that is transformational, transferable and sustainable. The three finalists will visit Philadelphia in April when the winner will be announced.
We went to Cambodia to visit International Development Enterprises (iDE), an NGO whose mission is to create income and livelihood opportunities for poor rural households. iDE has a latrine project in Cambodia that it is readying for replication across communities and cultures.
Our delegation began its work with an introductory meeting at iDE headquarters, in which I was introduced to the concept of community-led total sanitation (CLTS). This means that the community (not an outside group) moves its culture toward hygienic sanitation practices. This is fundamentally important for long-term cultural adoption of these practices.
CLTS has the goal of ODF—open-defecation free—communities. Specifically, iDE’s latrine project promotes the use of pour-flush latrines with offset catchment in the rural areas. Historically, rural people defecate on the open ground (behind bushes and trees), which can result in contamination of well water and cause major public health issues for rural residents.
Equipped with this overview information, we headed for the Cambodian countryside. We met entrepreneurs who build the latrine and the customers who buy the latrine for $35. iDE provides the entrepreneurs with sales training and encourages them to employ local residents as salespeople. We learned from the salespeople that they are trained not to focus on why a latrine is good, but rather on why outdoor defecation is bad. The hope is that customers will see that they are not just buying a consumer good; they are purchasing a solution to a health problem.
A fundamental tenet of the program is that the consumer must want the latrine enough to purchase it for their family. However, the average wage in this area is $2 per day, so the latrine represents a substantial economic investment. To make the purchase economically feasible, iDE is partnering with a microfinance organization that will allow residents to pay the $35 over six months.
Although I have traveled extensively, I can say that my time in Cambodia was truly once in a lifetime. I met incredible people with a heartfelt dedication to solving public health problems. I was also proud to represent the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania as we join in the mission of serving the public good.