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Advocating for investment in sanitation: is your jury still out?

Written by Peter Newborne

Imagine standing in front of a group of 12 men and women, summoned to hear the case for and against investment in sanitation. They are non-experts. You are the specialist. You know the importance of sanitation for the dignity and health of millions of people who lack basic facilities. You believe you will do a good job of arguing the case that sanitation is an urgent development priority.

But are you sure? The profile of sanitation was raised during the UN International Year of Sanitation. And much of the stigma about discussion on the disposal of human faeces has been lifted. But are you ready to make the best of that platform – will you convince your jury?

Ingredients for Sanitation Policy-Making
Research carried out by ODI and its Ethiopian partners in the ‘RIPPLE’ Programme (Research-inspired policy and practice learning in Ethiopia), proposes three ingredients for successful policy-making that apply to sanitation: 1) Sound strategising, which generates 2) a policy that is well-positioned, politically, and 3) effective communications.  

Drawing on insights for The Golden Rules of Advocacy, by Keith Evans, there are three Golden Rules in communicating sanitation (the third ingredient).

Rule 1: Detail is dangerous to good advocacy!
‘On the road of persuasion’ says our expert advocate, ‘choose just a few technical bits, carefully chosen:  only those bits your audience needs to know’.

This is a lesson borne out by the example of the southern region of Ethiopia. Contrary to the conventional way of documenting a policy strategy in technical terms, documents on the sanitation and hygiene strategy were produced by the regional health bureau to inspire and persuade, in non-technical language, to reach out beyond technical people. Our Ethiopian colleague reports this lesson has been repeated at national level, in recent communication-oriented documents.

This rule is familiar, but how well do sanitation practitioners act upon it?  

As our professional advocate would advise: where you have to convey heavy, boring bits, prepare your audience. ‘Get to your difficulties before anyone else does – you will handle them so much more sympathetically than your opponent! Take away the element of surprise: aim to make your audience feel, when they get to that point of difficulty: ‘Oh yes, we were told about that’!’ 

Rule 2: Don’t ask your audience to believe the unbelievable!
Advocacy has to be ‘do-able’. Set goals for sanitation investment which are inspiring, but don’t stretch credibility to breaking point.

The contribution of ‘Community-led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS), a prominent approach to sanitation promotion in rural areas, is remarkable in its mobilising power. Kamal Kar, the originator of CLTS wrote: ‘Igniting the fire of community participation’ by ‘exposing the crude reality of village sanitary conditions through visual analysis of facts by themselves’.

Rule 3. Show them the way home!
‘This is the heart of it’, says our advocacy advisor. ‘Home’ is the decision which you, as promoters of sanitation, are aiming at – the objective of your sanitation advocacy. As to the ‘way’, you have to assume your audience, including the sceptics, are fellow travellers in a land they know little, and you are to guide them to the place called ‘Sanitation Investment’.

‘You know their journey to that place could be challenging; otherwise you wouldn’t be before them pleading Sanitation’s case; you also know there are other people who want to take your audience somewhere else altogether’.

In other words, we need powerful narratives powerfulenough to persuade the many sanitation juries out there.

‘The truly persuasive advocate paints the listener a picture of an easy enjoyable journey …  s/he promotes a place worthy of the journey, where the members of the jury will be welcome, and where they will experience the sensation of bringing right where before there was wrong’.    

What’s your best sanitation narrative?