Friday, 9 September 2011

Sanitation 'Entrepreneurs' – or Just Minding their own Business?

by David Schaub-Jones

Sanitation zooms up the charts

If the water and sanitation sector had a ‘hit parade’ (if you’re my age and ever watched the BBC, think ‘Top of the Pops’) then the song “Sanitation, everyone’s Business” would be zooming up the charts. Hell, it would easily be in the top ten by now. 

We have just come back from Stockholm Water Week, where the whirl of discussion around all things water, sanitation, hygiene (and now, climate) was intense as ever. Not so long ago, when BPD ran a
session on sanitation it was one of a measly two sessions on the topic all week. This year we, along with a few friends, ran a session on ‘sanitation entrepreneurs’ and a hundred and fifty people packed into a small room (meant for ninety) just so they could experience ‘sanitation speed dating’! See our facebook profile for some unusual photos.

A few happy trends are pushing the ‘sanitation entrepreneurs’ tune on its heady climb up the charts. One is that sanitation has itself improved its profile, thanks partly to a concerted push from activists to ‘get it on the map’ (while having the Gates Foundation weigh into the issue has certainly not hurt).


The business of sanitation vs social entrepreneurship

Another is the popularity of anything that can be labelled ‘social entrepreneurship’. Here sanitation has two advantages. As with water, there is lots of informal private activity on the ground. Yet compared to water, sanitation is politically much less contested. This means that no-one is (yet?) making a fuss about sanitation providers ‘profiteering from the poor’. A second advantage, if you can call it that, is that sanitation is so firmly in the ‘public goods’ camp that just about anyone taking a private sector approach can add the tagline ‘social’ to their activities and get away with it (HT Sophie Tremolet).

Which brings me to my point. Just how much sanitation entrepreneurship is there out there anyway? As I said, there is a lot of private business involvement in sanitation, particularly in developing countries where much of it is informal. But how much of this can be considered truly entrepreneurial, never mind qualify for the seemingly hallowed tag of 'social entrepreneurship'?

BPD (or is that just me?) may be as guilty as anyone for the boosterism associated with the topic. Yet a couple of sessions in Stockholm – BPD’s on sanitation entrepreneurs and another on
small scale finance – brought home to me just how far we may have to go. 

More on this, the 'missing middle' next week .....

PS these are not meant as rhetorical questions - please weigh in! 

1 comment:

  1. My, my, who says there is no such thing as progress!
    “The AWF will fund up to ten projects that improve the sanitation situation of a densely populated urban poor community, or of a small to medium size town (and “private service providers” are eligible for funds between € 800 000 to € 1 200 000)”.
    See for more. Concept note deadline 30 Sept 2011.