Broken Toilets: the quest for the essential, unwritten stories of global development

May 05, 2016


Samyuktha Varma and Emily Madsen
Broken Toilets Magazine

Emily and Samyuktha at their last Broken Toilets face-to-face meeting in Hong Kong, 2015.

As development practitioners we constantly ask ourselves if we're sharing the “right” stories about the work we've seen and done. Global development projects are complex. They are (or at least should be) more complicated than the headlines we're used to seeing: “4 million dollars was spent to build 20,000 toilets for 10 villages.”  We often miss the most interesting aspects of how people - NGOs, governments, and, most importantly, communities - are trying to address problems.  Between the technical reports and the press releases, what we learned from a project and how it may not have lived up to our expectations, tends to be relegated to water cooler conversations with our colleagues.

We started Broken Toilets magazine to tell these stories, hopefully in an interesting and engaging way. The two of us [BT's co-founding editors] met while working on sanitation projects in Bangalore. Samyuktha worked in wastewater reuse in agriculture, but always with health partners, and Emily worked for a health NGO, with a focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene.

At the center of our intersecting work Venn diagram was poo, and a desire to speak candidly about it and other critical topics in developing communities around the world.

As we've been developing this magazine, we've become more and more convinced that the most interesting and impactful stories are those that tell how communities are working to address challenges in health, sanitation, infrastructure, education, women's rights, etc. themselves. These are the stories and anecdotes that get the most agreeing nods at the conference tea breaks. But for some reason, it's challenging to get funders to pay attention to them and they aren't exciting or sensational enough to appeal to large media outlets. However, we know that without them readers will never get the whole picture.

A great example comes from our first issue of Broken Toilets, Sludge, where our contributor Avinash Krishnamurthy wrote on the value of informal practices for waste reuse in a peri-urban town outside Bangalore, India. In Fecal Sludge, A Local Story, he described how listening to informal responses during interviews with community members revealed how farmers prevented contamination of crops that were fertilized with fecal sludge. The farmers weren't taught this method by outsiders coming in with indicators and evaluation checklists, but by following the practices of generations before them.

We usually feel constrained to speak only to the specific work that we were tasked to do going into a community, so these informal discussions usually go unreported.

Emily was once part of a field team evaluating nutrition programs in rural India. Part of the program's objective was to curb the high levels of diarrheal disease (DD) by building the capacity of village health workers to recognize and treat DD. Her team reported the challenges faced, the program's shortcomings, failures, and the small successes. When she read the final report written many tiers above her, she found that most of these important factors - both the good and the bad - didn't make the final cut. The village health workers' creative methods of reaching and educating mothers about DD got lost in the pie charts and impact indicators.

Development work, as we know it, demands a steep learning curve, listening and sharing. It involves a lot of different of people, and at a fundamental level, requires us to spend time understanding local practices: how people eat, grow food, and take care of their families and their environments.

As practitioners, we have a larger obligation regarding the work that we're doing, to make sure it positively impacts the people it's meant to serve.

We hope to be an alternative source for development journalism and we're trying to do this by bringing in more voices. Broken Toilets magazine features independently reported stories and views by narrative journalists, citizen journalists, as well as the opinions of researchers and practitioners. We want to explore the processes behind development and aid, the implications of this work for those affected by it the most, and ideas of progress along with the compromises they demand. Let us know if you have a story to tell!