I have often asserted that Filipinos are a people who are primarily driven by hiya (shame). Unmoved by any calls to higher purpose or noble pursuit, Filipinos continue to do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. As such I remain convinced that any political solution pitched as a “cure” to the malaise that grips the Philippines at the very threads that weave the very fabric of its society (whether it be the latest “messiah” running for office or the current top-down change initiative in vogue) delivers incremental improvements at best.
The reality we need to face is quite stark, however. The Philippines needs to change by leaps and bounds and nothing short of a tectonic shift in the thinking routinely applied by Filipinos in their day-to-day lives will be required for us to even just catch up with the rest of our major regional peers. The motivation needs to be primal — one that comes from deep within the underbelly of the collective psyche of the Filipino.
A brilliant illustration of how this might possibly happen in the Philippines comes in the form of an account of how a poor village in Bangladesh named Mosmoil overcame a deeply entrenched tradition across Bangladesh of people depositing human waste in open public areas. The practice, called open defecation is the subject of a major section of the book The Big Necessity (Adventures in the World of Human Waste) by journalist Rose George who spent years documenting toilet habits across cultures all over the world. Poor rural villages across Bangladesh have for so long frustrated government efforts to eradicate the practice of open defecation which is the single biggest cause of disease and death among Bangladeshis.
George tells of how she comes across Indian agricultural scientist Kamal Kar who was hired as a consultant by WaterAid to find out why, despite huge sums spent by the government on building public latrines (toilets) in poor Bangladeshi communities, the prevalence of illnesses and disease associated with excrement has not diminished.
Apparently, people continue defecating in the open even in communities where public latrines had been built. In the course of his investigation, Kar discovered that WaterAid had been “asking the wrong question”. He went on to formulate a groundbreaking approach to getting project communities to change their behaviours sustainably.
Here is an excerpt from The Big Necessity where this approach is described by author Rose George.
As Kar explained in a how-to guide to the method, ‘It is important to stop in the areas of open defecation and spend quite a bit of time there asking questions and making other calculations while inhaling the unpleasant smell and taking in the unpleasant sight of large-scale open defecation. If people try to move you on, insist on staying there despite their embarrassment. Experiencing the disgusting sight and smell in this new way, accompanied by a visitor to the community, is a key factor which triggers mobilization.’
The calculations involved villagers doing their sums. They were asked to reckon how much excrement was being left in the open. ‘The accumulated volume of faeces,’ Kar wrote, ‘is reckoned in units that can immediately be visualized by the community — cart-loads, truck-loads, boat-loads. There is much amusement as people reckon up which family contributed the most shit to the pile that morning. But as the exercise goes on, the amusement turns to anxiety. People are horrified by the sheer quantity of excerement left in their village: “120,000 tons of shit is being dumped here every year? Where the hell does it all go?”‘
The answer, as the villagers of Mosmoil figured out for themselves, is ‘into their bathing ponds and rivers; and from there onto their clothes, their plates and cups, their hands and mouths. Onto the udders of their cows and into their milk. Onto the feet and hooves of their livestock, dogs, and chickens, and onto the flies that carry it straight to their food.’ Eventually, the villagers of Mosmoil calculated that they were eating ten grams of each others’ faecal matter a day. At this point, the brilliant core of Kar’s method is revealed. The brilliant core is disgust.
Nothing like disgust for one’s own distasteful practices and state of affairs galvanises one to act. And this is demonstrated in what happens next in Kar’s account…
[…] after the faecal calculation, people started vomiting from the shock. Then Kar did something more shocking still. He left them to it, or threatened to. ‘I said, “Carry on what you’re doing. Your forefathers did it; you can do it. Good-bye.”‘ The story as Kar tells it is suspiciously dramatic, but enough reports have been written on the Bangladesh programme that I believe him. Immediately, he says, the villagers were fired up with shame and disgust and determination. Children ran off to start digging latrine pits on the spot. The villagers swore that within two months ‘not a single fellow would still be shitting in the open’. All this took place without a penny of subsidy being dispensed. No latrines had been supplied, no technical advice. In the how-to guide, Kar says that once disgust has been triggered, villagers may say that they can’t afford a pit latrine. At that point, the facilitator can suggest a simple, low-cost design, emphasizing that it was created by poor people. Kar wanted to shift focus away from hardware. It didn’t matter, he believed, if latrines were temporary. People would upgrade if they needed to. Once they’d seen the light of disgust they would do whatever was necessary.
Word of this approach spread fast, and as the author attests to, the programme racked up noted successes.
Perhaps the best approach to embedding permanent change in Philippine society is to build a sense of ownership over and accountability for both the solution and its benefits among Filipinos. It starts with a clear recognition by our own reckoning of the systems of cause-and-effect of the way we behave and take the journey of coming to a strong sense of shame and disgust with our own practices, our own character, our very selves.
Filipinos need to come to terms with their own version of Bangladesh’s practice of open defecation and find in themselves the courage to feel disgust for themselves.
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