Life has become more colourful: the social and economic outcomes of community-led sanitation initiatives in the rural Philippines

By Rachael Sorcher, Elene Cloete, Ami Dasig Salazar, Elvis Gatchalian & Juanjoe Gonzales

This blog post provides an introduction to the recently published paper from the Journal of Water, Sanitation & Hygiene for Development, and highlights some of the key features of the research.

Despite investment, the world is far behind in meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in regard to water, sanitation, and hygiene, illuminating the need for better insight into the root causes of WASH issues and tailored solutions. Perhaps one challenge lies with how we justify the value of and therefore need for improved sanitation.

For decades, improving health has been a guiding force behind WASH interventions. However, there is an established body of literature that fails to show their health impact. As questions therefore arise, in efforts to prove the “value” of WASH interventions, a growing movement of scholars and practitioners alike are calling for thorough investigation into their non-health-related impacts. Doing so not only addresses WASH as the fundamental human right that it is but also helps to improve the implementation and sustainability of context-specific WASH interventions. It can also provide additional data that practitioners and policy makers can use to justify why funding sanitation is a good investment. If the focus on health and mental health benefits are not fully capturing investors, perhaps other indicators might. By analyzing the impact of community-led sanitation initiatives in rural Philippines municipalities across the province of Nueva Ecija, Central Luzon, our article exemplifies such understudied social and economic outcomes.

Together, researchers at Outreach International and Outreach Philippines Inc. conducted interviews across three community-based organizations (CBOs) with 13 CBO leaders and 50 sanitation project participants. These interviews were based on the Most Significant Change and Photovoice methodologies, enabling the research team to collect a wide range of visual evidence signifying the impact of improved sanitation on personal and community well-being.

Key Takeaways

Based on the experiences of community members, the research team found the following key insights:

  1. Access to improved sanitation infrastructure promoted a positive change in parents’ and children’s hygiene and sanitation practices.
  2. Improved sanitation infrastructure adapted to communities’ specific needs enhanced people’s independence, privacy and security.
  3. Improved sanitation in the community enhanced participants’ ability to reclaim their spaces - previously covered in waste - for personal and public use, cultivation, and economic stimulation, subsequently increasing economic capital. 
  4. CBOs acted as enablers of improving sanitation by unifying project participants, strengthening their skill sets, and building their confidence in carrying out latrine and concurrent projects.

Voices of Sanitation Project Participants

To concretize these results, it is most helpful to hear from those who implemented the sanitation projects from the ground up.

Among other women, Reyna described how before the implementation of their community’s sanitation project, their latrine walls were filled with holes or did not have doors, leaving them ‘prone to get peeked at’. However, her CBO developed a latrine project that took such experiences into account. They therefore added a bathing component to the latrine structure, which now gave project participants the security to bathe privately and unclothed, sometimes for the first time.

Amor is the owner of a flourishing business, in large part thanks to the implementation of her community’s latrine project. With a reversal in open defecation practices and improved waste management, her surroundings are clean. She and her community can now use these areas for play or cultivation activities. Therefore, Amor started growing colourful indoor and outdoor plants. She eventually turned this into a business, selling both via Facebook and by the road. Today, this at-home business not only provides income, but the flexibility to take care of her 6-year-old child.

Erica used to be dependent on her neighbours’ latrine which led to great feelings of embarrassment and frequent scoldings. She was not alone in this, as several project participants discussed similar experiences and the shame that came along with not being able to invite guests over to their homes. However, with the help of her CBOs latrine project, Erica now has her own latrine and is proud to have visitors.

Erica showing a guest to her latrine as installed through her CBO’s sanitation project

Moving Forward

As our evidence shows, if we want to successfully fund and carry out WASH interventions, messaging around why we need to invest in improved sanitation must change to account for their non-health related impacts. Appreciating such interventions’ social and economic outcomes (and more) will enable program designers to not only identify ways of increasing and sustaining improved sanitation but to ensure their implementation. To gather more evidence that is true to community members’ experiences, we must utilize adaptive and participatory approaches as we explain in this article regarding our methods design during COVID-19. With that said, it is difficult to conduct research on this topic if sanitation projects are not thriving. Therefore, as we argue in this blog, accessible funds need to be made available for community-based groups to implement projects best suited to their needs, including those related to sanitation.

Although the results are incoming, undertaking this work to uncover the non-health impacts of WASH interventions will surely provide us with a deeper understanding of the different ways in which people experience sanitation and ingenious community-led solutions that may be adapted to enhance well-being worldwide.

This work is part of a multinational study. Results are forthcoming.

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