Indonesia changed the practice of open defecation by educating ‘facilitators’ from within communities, who were then expected to trigger a larger transformation

It is the dry season in central Java. At noon, the sun is so strong it liquefies the paddy fields into a sea of twinkling green stars. But inside one hut in Kramat village, some two hours east of the provincial capital Semarang, the heat does little to dampen the enthusiasm of the half-a-dozen men.

The assembled group includes a watermelon seller, a rice farmer, a mason, a retired government health official and a kyai or Islamic scholar. They are a seemingly motley crew, but are united by their newfound enthusiasm for toilets. All are members of the Sanitation Entrepreneurs Association of Grobogan district, that goes by the name of Papsigro.

Their story dates to 2010 when the local government, in collaboration with the non-governmental organisation, Plan International, launched a community-led total sanitation (CLTS) programme. At the time, CLTS was a new approach in a country that had, for decades, unsuccessfully tried to address its sanitation challenges through government subsidies.

Indonesia may be South East Asia’s largest economy but its record on sanitation has lagged, with 115 million people still lacking access to improved sanitation. Some 60 million people, or 25 per cent of the population, continue to practise open defecation with enormous health and economic implications. Nearly 1,51,000 children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea and the World Bank estimates a loss of 2.3 per cent of GDP due to poor sanitation and hygiene.

Changing behaviour

The Indonesian government’s long-standing sanitation strategy was one of subsidising the building of public toilets. But, as in India, the simple availability of toilets did little to change the mindset of people used to open defecation. Eka Setiawan, head of Plan International’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme in Indonesia explains that there was no sense of ownership of government-constructed public toilets, with no one bothering to maintain them. Often, the toilets were used as chicken coops or storage spaces, while villagers continued to defecate in the fields and by water sources.

People seemed to prefer to spend their money on aspirational consumer products like mobile phones, rather than on toilets which were seen as neither desirable nor necessary. The CLTS approach, adopted in 2008, decided to turn away from subsidies and toilet construction. Instead, it focussed on changing behaviour by educating a number of “facilitators” from within communities, who were then expected to trigger a larger transformation by creating awareness and a desire to change among their peers.

Role of facilitators

Reading about “facilitators” and “triggering” change can sound like jargonistic hokum. But Grobogan, a largely rural district, home to 1.5 million people, is testament to the genuine transformations that such an approach can bring in its wake. Within two years of the programme being launched, 150 of the 153 target villages in Grobogan, were open defecation-free, or ODF, as it is abbreviated in sanitation parlance.

One major reason for this success was the men gathered on the packed-earth floor of the hut in Kramat village. All of them had been given the opportunity to become community facilitators as part of the CLTS programme, an experience that was to prove seminal. As children, none of them had used toilets. But learning about the damage caused by unsanitary practices not only persuaded them to change their behaviour but also enabled them to find ways to make money, while persuading others to do the same.

These men, who come from different villages within the district, individually took advantage of the training that Plan International offered, to set up sanitation-related businesses. In doing so, they developed a financial stake in stoking the demand for toilets within their communities. In 2011, they joined forces to establish Papsigro, an association that currently boasts of 30 members, each of whom specialises in a particular area.

Religion and sanitation

Fifty-year-old Pak Pardiyanto focusses on manufacturing the actual closets, which he sells for as little as IDR 40,000 ($4). Forty-four-year-old Pak Suminto, whose hut we are gathered in, is the “latrine package” specialist who sources toilets and installs them. Sixty-seven-year-old Pak Iwan is a retired health department specialist who keeps up to speed on the latest toilet research. There are technicians and fibreglass mould makers; and even a local Islamic scholar, 39-year-old Pak Umar.

Sweating lightly under his skullcap, Umar, who acts as chairperson of the group, rattles off a series of statistics. By June 2013, Papsigro members had sold 1,850 toilets, and installed 570 latrine packages, he says.

I ask whether he ever felt strange about combining his roles as religious leader and toilet educator. Umar shakes his head. After the CLTS project was launched, it is not uncommon in the area for local imams to combine proselytising religion with sanitation. One kyai from the nearby village of Sumur Gede has even earned for himself the name of “faeces ninja,” given his penchant for patrolling the bridges that span the river in his village at dawn, and directing his torch on any open defecator who crosses his path to shame him into changing his habit.

I’m struck by the lack of stigma attached to sanitation. Unlike in India, the debilitating caste factor where sanitation is bound up with untouchability, and the dichotomy of purity and pollution espoused by Brahminical Hinduism, is absent.

Papsigro members are unanimous in dismissing any notion of shame attached to their dealings with toilets. “We love toilets,” says Pak Pardiyanto. “What’s not to love?” asks 35-year-old Pak Wahid, the youngster in the group. “It’s because of toilets that Pak Pardiyanto could afford to get his daughter married and Pak Suminto could buy the land behind his home to expand his hut. And I bought a motorcycle and built this new house.”

“Look!” he commands, showing me on his mobile phone a picture of a flashy new home with red clay tiles lining its sloping roofs. Pak Pardiyanto jumps in. “Our families are proud of us. We can easily earn around two million rupiah ($200) a month from our businesses.”

Pak Iwan, the grand old man of Grobogan sanitation, interjects. “But, it’s not all about profit. With this work, we are changing people’s lives.” He says he spent decades watching subsidies fail to make a difference. “But now in two or three years we are ODF. It’s a miracle.”

None of the Papsigro members is well educated. Not only are they unfamiliar with English, some do not even speak the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, well, preferring to use the local Javanese dialect. Yet, the manner in which terms like ODF trip off their tongue with ease is telling and heartening.

Pride of place

We take a motorbike ride around the village. Pak Suminto is in his element, proudly pointing to various toilets he has installed. We stop in front of a large, ramshackle hut. Inside, chickens run around on the dusty floor, but by the corner of the space that serves as a kitchen, a toilet has pride of place.

Ibu Siticoma, mother of five grown children, cannot stop giggling with embarrassment when talking about the latrine. “We used to just go outside, under the trees,” she says before covering her mouth in a fit of laughter. “But my son thought it was dangerous. We could slip and fall, or get bitten by snakes. So he asked Pak Suminto to build us one [toilet] inside.” She breaks out into another round of laughter. “It’s very good now. Safe and comfortable, even if it’s raining.”

Siticoma’s husband stands passively by one side, his eyes filmed over by age, looking confused at this gaggle of intruders staring at his toilet. But Pak Pardiyanto is too busy demonstrating how the toilet design is suitable for the elderly to notice. He squats down and beams into the camera with a thumbs-up sign. “ODF!” he proclaims.

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