Catching Up on the Toilet Revolution
December 20th, 2018
By Natalie Pond
A few weeks ago, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates walked on stage at the Reinvented Toilet Expo carrying a beaker of human feces.
To some (or maybe most), this stunt might seem outlandish. Graphic. Unnecessary, even. Isn’t there a more socially appropriate way to get people’s attention? We know conference speeches can be dull, but isn’t this extreme?
Unfortunately, as I learned this summer, Bill Gates is right to be doing everything in his power to get people’s attention on the subject of human waste. In developed countries where sewage systems are mostly invisible and toilet technology is an absolutely unquestioned staple of life, it’s understandable that processing human waste would be far beyond the scope of your ordinary everyday imaginings. But the reality is this: as 2018 comes to a close, more than half the world’s population does not have access to safe sanitation technology. That means a global economic burden of $223 billion in higher health costs and lost wages from sick workers, a burden mostly carried by poor countries who simply can’t afford such losses.
This was all new information to me when I joined an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) group of Chinese developers, philanthropists and researchers in a conversation with Dr. Doulaye Koné, Senior Program Officer at the Gates Foundation and someone who is “interested in innovations, technologies & tools that turn sh*it into market products” (his words, not mine). IVLP is the premier professional exchange of the U.S. Department of State, with a 75-year history of promoting powerful dialogue and idea exchange through short-term programs connecting international leaders with their U.S. counterparts. The World Affairs Council welcomes between 500-600 IVLP leaders to Seattle every year who meet with a diverse range of thought leaders and organizations in their respective field for substantive discussions. IVLP program topics might range from sanitation, to cyber-security, to the judicial system, to name just a few examples of recent Council programs.
From my seat at this discussion between the Chinese IVLP leaders and Dr. Koné, I understood that today’s topic would be an overview of some of Gates’ pioneering work on sanitation technology in developing countries. I did not understand the gravity of the sewage crises facing billions of people worldwide. I also did not understand the power of one object to bring so many different people together.
I am, of course, referring to the toilet.
As I was furiously scribbling notes on some of Dr. Koné’s more startling figures (12% of the world’s population has zero sanitation technology available, 500,000 children die per year of preventable pathogenic diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid fever…) the rest of the group was already forming much more complex questions. Has the Gates Foundation explored toilet paper technology? How does the Foundation address complex social norms (particularly gender norms) in developing inclusive sewage systems? What will be the next major technological development in the toilet?
Although speaking through interpreters, the enthusiasm from the Chinese visitors was palpable. One was a sociologist who specifically students human behavior around toilets. Another worked for the department of tourism in a rural area and was thinking about how to pioneer innovative sewage technologies in his community. Another specialized in developing facial recognition software to limit the amount of toilet paper people take at public restrooms. One thing bound them all together, including Dr. Koné: an absolutely fierce belief that advancing toilet technology is a crucial step to saving the world.
At the end of Dr. Koné’s talk, one of the visitors passed on a gift – a tiny toilet figurine, perfect for your desk! The group gathered together and took a photo with Dr. Koné and the tiny toilet. Given his line of work, I thought surely Dr. Koné must already have something just like it, but he seemed truly enthusiastic—like he couldn’t wait to run down the hall and place the toilet next to a framed picture of his family.
I came away from our conversation by turns both perplexed and inspired. As a student of public administration, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to do good in the world—where do I want to do good, and how. With graduation just around the corner, these questions feel more urgent. Everyone else’s plans seem to be crystallizing into fabulous career opportunities (or, at the very least, strong LinkedIn blurbs). But as the group of Chinese visitors and Dr. Koné showed me, doing good is not the same as doing glamorous. Doing good is to look at the world’s most urgent needs, be they graphic, messy, unpopular to discuss, and perhaps not dinner-table safe—and bring them right into the forefront, if sometimes couched in a suitably cheeky sense of humor.
Did I mention that last month’s Reinvented Toilet Expo (where Bill Gates brought poop on stage) was hosted in Beijing? Fortuitous indeed that five months earlier I got to be part of a much more intimate conversation, with a range of diverse stakeholders, united in a vision of making toilet talk the next big conversation in global development.
About the author: Natalie is an intern with the International Visitor Program and an MPA Candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.