Not Just Another Day

By Tim Kellow, Nigeria Country Director, Concern Universal, on Global Handwashing Day, 15th October 2015

15 Oct, 2015 in

Today is Global Handwashing Day, a global advocacy day dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of good hygiene. Global Handwashing Day was founded by the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing (PPPHW), SWA’s newest member.

I’ve always been a sceptic when it comes to world ‘Days’. However noble the cause, what difference can they really make? The International Day of Peace…as if the various factions in Syria or Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists paused from their daily destruction to consider alternative approaches. How many acres of forest are cleared for extracting resources or planting cash-crops every International Environment Day? Aside from providing a hook for advocacy press releases, how could those involved possibly think that one day could positively affect the suffering on the front lines of poverty and insecurity? Well, having run behavior change projects in West Africa over the last five years I am beginning to believe that it can…

Today is Global Handwashing Day; and, together with its cousin World Toilet Day on 19th November, it brings attention to the most basic issues – hygiene & sanitation – that to our shame still account for two million child deaths a year.

A third of the world’s population – 2.4 billion people – lives with poor sanitation and hygiene which, according to the World Bank, costs countries $260 billion annually. Every day 2,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday due to diarrheal diseases, the vast majority caused by poor sanitation and hygiene[1]. Diarrhea alone killed far more young children in Nigeria over the last 12 months – around 150,000 – than Boko Haram’s slaughtering and the wars in Syria combined. Whilst we continue the daily search for even a hint of a resolution to these two brutal and complex conflicts, we already know the simple solution to tackling hygiene and sanitation-related diseases.

We know that handwashing with soap is the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrheal diseases - reducing incidence by up to 47% - and combined with improved sanitation, this is boosted to 68%. [2]  We know that in countries with the highest child mortality rates, as few as 1% of people wash their hands effectively and that the global average is only 19%.[3] Most frustratingly, effective tools and participatory methods are readily available and it is estimated that interventions that promote handwashing could save close to a million lives. [4] So why is hygiene promotion not a focus of most development projects?

The relative lack of attention in both development and media circles is why we need days such as Global Handwashing & World Toilet Day to remind us of how simple the solutions to serious issues can be. They can also be used creatively to launch an outreach campaign or to celebrate behavior change achievements. In Nigeria, Concern Universal’s month-long Global Handwashing Day campaign brings together famous musicians, local leaders, and a soap company to empower thousands of school children as hygiene promoters in communities already committed to improving sanitation. We are using World Toilet Day to hold simultaneous celebrations in 400 communities that have ended open defecation and to encourage their neighbours to join the movement! These complement a broader initiative funded by the Global Sanitation Fund - the only global fund solely dedicated to sanitation and hygiene.

So the next time you dismiss a seemingly naïve or delusional ‘Day’, bear in mind those who are celebrating the start or realisation of a commitment to transform their own lives in a much more tangible way than giving up smoking; and spare a thought as to why we still need to draw attention to such basic needs and rights as hygiene and sanitation to ensure that they are specified targets in the new set of global indicators and goals.   

Instead, why not join us in celebrating the Global Handwashing Day and when you hear someone recounting the latest casualty figures from the interminable and brutal conflicts making the news, remind them of the scale of killing perpetrated by germs that terrorise children and the of simple solution that is already in our reach.

[1] UNICEF.  New York (2013) “Children dying daily because of unsafe water supplies and poor sanitation and hygiene”. http://www.unicef.org/media/media_68359.html

[2] Curtis and Cairncross. The Lancet, Infectious Diseases. Vol 3. (2003) Effect of washing hands with soap on diarhoea risk in the community: a systematic review. http://www.hygienecentral.org.uk/pdf/CurtisHandwashing.pdf

[3] http://globalhandwashing.org/about-handwashing/faqs/#poorhw

[4] “Sanitation is vital for good health.” UN Water.  http://www.unicef.org.mz/claudio/f2_health.pdf