National Sanitation Day: Why it Failed

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The National Sanitation Day initiative failed and memories of the event have since ebbed into quiet oblivion.

Not a lot has been said about why or how it failed; however, the fact sanitation remains a national challenge and, the fact it has been elevated as a priority national policy issue necessitates introspection.

As a country, and as a people, we need to learn from our shortcomings and the successful failure of the Sanitation Day initiative offers some learning opportunities.

The program was well-intended, no doubt, and was supposed to have been a rallying call to raise awareness and to instigate sanitation action in local communities.

In spite of all its great intentions and initial enthusiasm the program failed to make any significant impact in local communities.

For the most part, the National Sanitation Day initiative only came to represent what many perceived as a monthly fanfare of travelling high profile personnel from showbiz and government who converged in towns and cities around the country, to clean.

All too soon, enthusiasm for the National Sanitation Day dwindled and died naturally. The monthly travelling party of sanitation crusaders from Accra lost the momentum and the showmanship could not be sustained.

Today, and long before the recent change in government, and the announcement of the creation of a new Ministry of Sanitation, not many remember the once touted National Sanitation Day initiative.

Memories of the event stand like a ruin on the vast urban landscape of filth, rubble, rubbish. Insanitary conditions define our landscapes and mindscapes as they continue to remind us all that our urban sanitation challenges are endemic and require more than sanitation day solutions.

Why Not make everyday a Sanitation Conscious day?

The Sanitation Day program failed because it was conceptually flawed. It was reactive, short-sighted in its approach and indeed a lazy approach to addressing a situation which has become notoriously pervasive and obstinately ingrained in individual, community and institutional behavioral fabrics.

The program created the erroneous impression that responsibility towards social and environmental cleanliness in local communities could be deferred to a later date, and that all we need to do as a people is to gather together at the end of the month to clean.

This was the underlying unwritten message of the program and one that in many ways defined cognition and public perception.

The National Sanitation Day program failed because it was top-down; conceptually incoherent; inherently paternalistic and lacked local ownership.

The lack of local ownership created a logical apathy and a lack of participation, a situation which somehow prompted quiet intimations of using legislation to make participation a legal requirement.

Those soundings, as they turned out, were mere talks; just wishful thinking as they never moved beyond the imagination of those behind it.

The lack of local ownership and participation was a sure sign of failure right from the onset and that is why the initiative failed so successfully.

For most local people the spectacle of big name personnel cladded in full Zoomlion cleaning regalia with brooms and shovels in hand and in gutters in their communities was beholding and all they could do was to stand and stare.

Locals learned nothing in the process. They did not feel the program was for them and saw no reason to engage.

There was nothing about the Sanitation Day program that challenged the thinking, attitudes and behaviors of local people. It simply failed to make sanitation consciousness an everyday issue.

Another major flaw in the program was the exclusion of children in the process. There was no room for children and the program somehow created the perception that it was an adult program.

This was a fundamental error both in conceptualization and implementation. Social behavioral changes should be long-term and children provide some of the surest avenues to achieve such goals.

Celebrate Cleanliness and Reward Sanitation Best Practice

A National Sanitation Day, if necessary at all, should never have been about the occasional get-together of a travelling team of high-profile personalities descending on local communities to usurp a problem which is entirely local.

It should, instead, have focused on recognizing what individuals, communities and institutions are doing in their localities to maintain good sanitation and to support and encourage them to do even more.  

In other words, if Town A and its people are so successful in their sanitation management actions, a program such as the one we had could have recognized these actions and publicly praised them with rewards and incentives.

That in itself is educational and a powerful message to all communities. Here, instead of laws and militaristic postures that compel people to clean, a system of recognition, reward and local ownership could provide better incentives for transformative actions in local communities.

Such an approach would also send out a more meaningful message to individuals, Businesses, and institutions living and functioning in communities to take greater interest in sanitation management issues and to play leadership roles.

I am not sure how much of space the failed National Sanitation Day initiative will be accorded in the history and politics of sanitation management in the country.

Whatever it is, lessons have been learned that should inform new approaches in managing issues of sanitation and hygiene in our communities.

It is clear now that sanitation consciousness cannot be raised through top-down edicts that ignore the existential realities of people living in their local communities.

There is need for new approaches and this should begin with conscious processes of education, communication, awareness creation and partnership building to help local people and of course all people to come to terms with why they should live clean and healthy in their communities.

New Sanitation Management Approaches

Ghana’s sanitation challenges are first and foremost human problems. They are learning issues; behavioral and attitudinal, exacerbated only by the poverty of urban planning, the lack of policy and regulatory enforcement, and deficits in waste and sanitation infrastructure.

Any quest to find lasting solutions to the sanitation situation in the country should by all means focus on individuals and people.

However, there should also be an equal attention paid to all related issues such as infrastructure, policy enforcement and meaningful and functional public-private partnerships.

The creation of a stand-alone government ministry tasked with addressing issues of water, sanitation and hygiene in the country is a welcome news which certainly augurs well for focused and carefully coordinated policy actions to address the different sanitation challenges.

The eventual recognition of the linkage between water, sanitation and public health in policy and practice terms, and the importance of that to national development is very much welcome.

While the new Ministry gets ready to take off, it will require no reminder of the enormity of the task it faces in managing the multi-pronged sanitation challenges in our different communities.

Our streets remain filthy with waste; drains are clogged with plastic waste; mountains of waste sit uncollected at various points; people still defecate in the open and many people both in urban and rural communities lack clean water.

The new Ministry has its work well-cutout and it will be my expectation that the new Ministry will open new avenues to engage with the private sector by creating a conducive environment that fosters innovation and renewed private sector leadership in sanitation management in the country.

A good starting point will be a focus on the household.  An aspiration to build the capacity of households to manage sanitation effectively and efficiently will eventually translate into community capacity building.

Thus, it is important for the new Ministry to look at existing policies and practices and to explore how they could be redirected to strengthen sanitation management practices at the household level.

There are current efforts aimed at ensuring that every household has a toilet to curtail the ignominy of open defecation.

Sadly, open defecation remains a major problem and a function of current failures in sanitation and hygiene management.

Similarly, there are efforts led by Zoomlion to supply waste bins to all households at no cost or at very discounted fees.

The National Waste Bin program comes to mind, while I am not updated about current status, it is certainly a worthwhile initiative that should be supported by the new Ministry.

When individuals are not cultured to follow acceptable sanitation and waste management practices at the household level they venture into public spaces with such behaviors and attitudes the consequence of which is what we see in our streets and in our communities.

The writer is a Lecturer, independent development consultant and Principal Research Collaborator at the Africa Resilient Collaborative. He can be contacted at: bobmanteaw@africaresilience.com