How could policymakers achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? The case of sanitation infrastructure

By Jurin Katayama

In 2015, member states agreed and declared that they would adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Their objective was to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” through means such as ending poverty, stimulating economic growth, and tackling climate change. However, implementing this blueprint has been easier said than done. Policymakers must learn to be tactful – as their efforts could be futile, or worse, cause detrimental effects on civilians’ welfare.

Let us take the attempts to achieve basic sanitation (Goal 6) as an example. With millions of people worldwide defecating in the open, the implementation of safe toilets in these areas could promote sanitation, while also advancing poverty eradication (Goal 1), good health (Goal 3), and sustainable communities (Goal 11). Nevertheless, Dr Antonella Bancalari argues that the efforts of installing these infrastructures would be in vain if civilians do not comprehend the need for it. Furthermore, delays or failure to finish these public infrastructures would leave behind open ditches and water cuts, causing potential water-borne diseases and accidents. Dr Bancalari’s research on sanitation interventions therefore establish that governments’ actions must be well-thought and complete for countries to successfully achieve the SDGs.

The importance of supplying safe facilities

It is estimated that one in ten people practices open defection. This massive fecal contamination of the local environment results in harmful health effects, such as diarrheal diseases and giardiasis, which especially cause adverse pregnancy outcomes and premature deaths. Young women are also at risk, as they are twice as likely to be exposed to sexual assaults from non-partners than women with a household toilet.

While many would read these statistics and agree that it is vital to immediately implement safe toilets, the governments’ rates of investment and progress have been slow, risking the ability to attain the sustainable development goal 6 by 2030. Financial support from the government is also needed now more than ever, as most of those without household toilets in South-East Asia and Africa are too poor to build and maintain these quality infrastructures. However, simply making finance available through subsidies would be ineffective: if governments want to ensure the proper use of funds and are only willing to provide subsidies to households after the toilets are built, the poor would not be able to afford the constructions in the first place. Policymakers must therefore closely evaluate these funding schemes according to the needs of their people, as Dr Bancalari argues for combining subsidy with microcredit to yield necessary up-front funding, in the case of sanitation infrastructures.

Dr Bancalari further highlights the importance of governments to complete their infrastructure projects. Particularly in the case of sewerage infrastructure, the implementation phase brings open ditches and water cuts. Incompletion of these projects would result in lack of safe water availability, increased water-borne diseases, and even cases of young children drowning since they play in these hazardous areas. As a result, governments must commit to completing their projects at a reasonable pace, or their efforts would have detrimental effects that overturn the SDGs.

Encouraging the demand for safe toilets

Even if these infrastructures are successfully funded and completed, the supply would be marked useless if the civilians do not demand it. Policymakers must consequently nudge the community for behavior change by improving the quality of the facilities, as well as educating the individuals of the negative effects of not using them. Research conducted by Dr Bancalari, together with the team of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), finds that those in Indian slums are currently willing to pay only 27-29% of the market price (5 Indian rupees = 5p in the UK) to access community toilets. The research also found that improving the quality of community toilets  increased the demand for government intervention. Therefore, policymakers must understand that the demand for infrastructures such as these are not driven by market forces, leaving scope for public intervention. New research by Dr Bancalari and the IFS also finds that follow-up sensitization activities are effective at sustaining behavioral change over time (i.e. lower open defecation and greater use of functional latrines).

To meet the objectives of the SDGs by 2030, governments must not only supply the necessary infrastructures for the most vulnerable, but also encourage their demand. In addition, unforeseen circumstances, such as Covid-19, must not delay these projects, as incomplete infrastructures may instead lead to detrimental effects on civilians’ welfare. When push comes to shove, simply throwing money will not fix the problem, and incentives must be created with thought and efficiency.

About Dr Antonella Bancalari  

Antonella Bancalari is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of St Andrews and teaches the Health and Education module. She is also a Research Associate at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). As an applied microeconomist, she uses applied econometrics and field experiments to understand topics related to Development, Public and Health Economics. A fun fact is that she loves dancing and has performed live in the past. To find out more about Dr Bancalari, click here for her website.

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