Earlier this month, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), Nordic Human Rights Trust Fund, and the World Bank’s Sanitation Thematic Group hosted Catarina de Albuquerque , the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to sanitation and safe drinking water. She discussed the human right to sanitation with sector and human rights experts, and what it means in practice. One of the most notable questions she addressed was--- if something is a human right, does that mean it has to be free?
Human rights  such as education, health, food, or in this case, sanitation, means many things, but free is not one of them. That said, UN resolutions or conventions that declare something a human right mean that the state is obligated to create the conditions to ensure that these rights are affordable to rich and poor alike. Ms. Albuquerque confirmed that while sanitation is a universal and inalienable human right, it does not mean it is free.
Why would we be concerned whether the right to sanitation could be misconstrued to mean free toilets? To clarify, in this post when I talk about sanitation, I exclusively mean the management of human feces. The concern among sector professionals (including myself) is that we still have 1.8 billion people in rural areas without access to sanitation, and over 700 million people in urban areas. For decades, governments, donors, and NGOs have given toilets out for free, yet we still have 2.5 billion without access.
In part, the problem is ineffective supply driven sanitation programming – particularly on-site facilities (e.g. latrines) in rural areas. This outdated model is still practiced in many places, which means toilets are handed out for free without stimulating household demand for sanitation or understanding what households want or need in a toilet. This results in 1.) toilets getting constructed but not used as intended; 2.) communities that could afford toilets wait for free ones since sanitation is not a priority (there are more cells phones than toilets in India ); and 3.) ineffective targeting mechanisms often result in wealthier households capturing subsidies, leaving the poor behind without any access. This is exemplified in South Asia where there has been virtually no progress in gaining access to sanitation among households in the poorest wealth quintiles over the last twenty years unlike their rich counterparts in the wealthiest quintiles.
In spite of this lack of progress, many sector professionals are still fighting the head winds of supply driven approaches, and struggling to get buy in for evidence-based best practices that are demand–responsive and community- led, resulting in sustainable sanitation solutions. So there is good reason to be concerned about whether the human right to sanitation could provide new arguments for those who continue to support supply driven approaches and continue with the distribution of free toilets.
But if we ignore or downplay the human right to sanitation because we are worried that local political leaders or organizations will use the concept to promote their agenda, are we missing the bigger political issue among national level decision makers? The bigger issue is that governments are not paying enough attention to sanitation and are not investing adequate human or financial resources to reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets let alone universal access.
As sector professionals, I think we need to ask ourselves, can we use the legality of the resolution on human rights to sanitation to help shift the political economy , and the enabling environment in countries to provide a mechanism to give the poor a voice in the political process? Can this help redistribute scarce public resources from better off households who receive subsidized services (but can afford full payment for services) to targeted market based subsidies to those who actually need it? Can it help ensure equal rights for land tenancy legitimizing the ability of utilities to extend water and sanitation networks to densely populated urban and peri-urban unplanned settlements?
I believe the human rights to sanitation can play a part in addressing these questions, and sector professionals need to take a gamble and embrace the UN resolution. The resolution has been adopted so lets not worry about how others will use, but rather lets take advantage and use it ourselves as a tool to force a shift in the political economy of sanitation. With sanitation declared as a human right, governments are accountable to distribute their scarce resources in a more equitable manner, and we just might be able to make a difference among those who need it the most.
Who knows, perhaps if sanitation were declared a human right long ago, we would not be in the predicament that we are today.