Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, wants to restructure the field of sanitation worldwide. Providing humanity with clean, safe and convenient toilets is a familiar goal, but it remains a distant one because of cultural taboos, poor funding and a lack of political will. About 40 percent of humanity still lives without access to improved sanitation, and Jack believes the only way to meet the immense demand is through an orchestrated global campaign and the use of market forces to bring sanitation to everyone.
The New Idea
Jack is weaving a worldwide collection of citizen organizations (COs), donors, advocacy groups and multilateral agencies into a proper field. This means building organizations, networks, relationships, a common identity and common strategies. It also means bringing in new forms of investment.
Jack has founded a pair of global initiatives, the World Toilet Organization (WTO) and the World Toilet College (WTC). He is also one of the founders of Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA). WTO —and it is no coincidence that this name resembles that of another illustrious global body—is a membership organization of citizen groups, academia, and government agencies around the world whose work proves that progress on sanitation is possible. With 130 member organizations in fifty-one countries, WTO essentially is a collection of effective COs working in sanitation. Jack wove them into a network, boosting their local or national credibility by adding the WTO “brand.” These are the people who, with the right resources, can provide the solutions and services needed to begin to meet the demand for toilets.
The role of the second organization, SuSanA, is to align organizations, budgets, governments, and other sources of influence to redefine the mission and the urgency of sanitation. Members include members of national governments, U.N. and multilateral agencies, with room for private sector partners to join as well. Through SuSanA, Jack wants to use the great expanse of sanitation know-how to create an efficient global sanitation marketplace.
In addition to convening those players around a common agenda, Jack and WTO have initiated a number of programs that raise the profile of sanitation, break some of the cultural taboos around dealing with human waste, and demonstrate scalable ways to build the field. These include the World Toilet Expo, held in a different city each year; the World Toilet Summit; World Toilet Day (November 19); the Happy Toilet rating system for public loos; the WTC; and National Restroom Associations in more than fifty countries. Moreover, although WTO’s mission is not to build toilets directly worldwide—a task far too large for one organization—it does take on a few individual projects as a way to demonstrate good practices and build alliances, e.g., building public toilets in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the tsunami.
Many are surprised to learn that today there are 2.5 billion people worldwide, or about 40 percent of all humanity, without access to improved sanitation (U.N./World Health Organization, 2008). By contrast, just over a billion people live without a clean water supply. While it is encouraging to learn that more people are securing clean water each year, it is troubling that the numbers for toilets are actually getting worse: Fewer people have toilets each year. That means rural populations are growing faster than toilets are being built, and people are moving to city slums without toilets. While there is a good chance that the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals for water will be met, the goal for toilets—providing about 2 billion people with toilets by 2015—is unlikely to be met, even by half. In other words, the world has a major plumbing problem.
But what exactly is the nature of the problem? The toilet is not a technically complicated invention. It is not necessarily expensive to build and maintain, even for the poorest people on earth. True, using a toilet requires a change in behavior and outlook, but these changes are hardly insurmountable: Billions of people have adopted the toilet as a basic necessity. There is an entire industry devoted to inventing, producing, and marketing toilets. And beyond the private sector, numerous government, citizen, and multilateral organizations are devoted to improving the quality of sanitation locally, nationally, and at the global level.
Despite those favorable conditions, the field of sanitation faces major structural challenges. The conventional pairing of “water and sanitation” as a single field has seen water dominate, while sanitation takes a meager share of budgets, time, and attention. According to a WHO study, in 1999 to 2000 national and multilateral budgets for water and sanitation stood at about US$15.7 billion. But sanitation accounted for less than one-fifth of that money, with the lion’s share going to clean water supply. That comes to just over a dollar per toilet-less person on Earth, which is clearly inadequate, given that even low-cost toilet solutions in rural parts of the developing world cost out to about US$25 per person.
Because the scale of the problem is so much greater than the money provided to solve it, the citizen sector remains underdeveloped. Organizations compete with each other for scarce resources. Excellent solutions exist, but they have not been able to rise and grow and flourish. So they remain localized “best practices,” rather than institutions capable of serving the masses of people in need. Governments and large COs with weak roots in the population tend to dominate sanitation, with their apparent ability to build thousands of toilets in any project. But it is not quite so simple to succeed: Toilets that are built for rural populations are frequently converted to other purposes. Toilet construction materials may be dumped in a village, as Jack reported seeing in India, while the government ticks off a thousand more latrines toward fulfilling its national goals. And without a solid CO on the ground, it is impossible to actually monitor if the toilets are being used.
Not having enough toilets in rural areas is not the only problem. In cities everywhere, public restrooms are scarce, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. The lack of good toilets hurts the economy. Shopping malls and tourist attractions often have poor toilet facilities, as do cities trying to improve their image and grow. Beijing, for example, which hosted the 2008 Olympics, had a major challenge on its hands in trying to ensure the comfort of a wave of guests.
More generally, human waste is still a taboo subject. People don’t feel comfortable talking about toilets, excrement, urination and defecation, the relative merits of different grades of toilet paper, or the best way to eliminate smells from a restroom. Those are things that decent people just do not talk about—a genteel sentiment that would be tolerable if there were not billions of people who need toilets, and millions of infants and adults alike who die from diseases of insanitation every year. Jack feels that just as sex was a taboo, not to be discussed in polite company until a revolution brought it into the open in all but the most conservative societies, so, too, has the time come for a cultural awakening to the realities of the toilet.
Jack’s formidable strategic question is how to transform the dysfunctional market for sanitation into a full, dynamic, beneficial one. The key is to stimulate demand for better toilets, a demand that Jack believes already exists, but is latent and poorly understood. Demand takes several forms: Demand for “first toilets” among people without any access to proper sanitation, mostly the rural poor in the developing world; demand for better toilet facilities in urban areas worldwide; and demand for capital to expand existing services.
Demand for first toilets exists, but it is latent. It’s really only the citizen sector that knows how to address the demand in a way that results in real behavior change. This is why it is so important for Jack to build up WTO as the worldwide association of citizen groups that know how to deliver quality service.
Because of the nature of the subject and a fragmented field, the key to building WTO is to talk openly about the problem and find out who is ready to take action, which Jack does with vigorous enthusiasm. Today WTO has 130 members in fifty-one countries. He builds and maintains the membership in part through various events. The World Toilet Expo and Forum is an event he organizes in a different major city each year—Singapore 2001, Seoul 2002, Taipei 2003, Beijing 2004, Shanghai and Belfast 2005, Bangkok and Moscow 2006, and New Delhi 2007—convening everyone who is interested in sanitation to meet, discuss their work, and build a common platform. This year’s summit, November 4-6 at Macau’s Venetian Resort is supported by the Asian Development Bank and will be opened by the Prince of Orange, Chair of UN Secretary-General Advisory Board. The Expo is basically a trade show for companies that produce toilets and related products. Vendors pay fees to exhibit their wares, and Jack uses that income to pay for the Forum, which is the citizen sector activity. In this way he manages to convene a meeting of toilet enthusiasts every year as a zero-cost event.
Now that WTO is gaining credibility, Jack is turning more of his attention to generating mass-production of sanitation products for low-income groups. He saw the need for entire market infrastructures to be built. He is now engaging for-profit manufacturers to enter this market. He reckons that although the poor cannot afford expensive toilets, their numbers are large enough to command well-designed products at low prices. Two and a half billion people mean that more than 500 million toilets need to be supplied. He plans to create the equivalent of an IKEA for the poor in sanitation products. Already, a first investor has emerged to answer his call for action.
The poor need financing to buy toilets. A year ago, Jack also started working with Ashoka Social Financial Services Director Arthur Wood, and together with World Bank Water and Sanitation Program, Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council, and several other key global actors and SuSanA, they created the World Sanitation Funding Facility. He saw the great cash flow financing potential in sanitation which includes microcredit, commercial loans, and an array of traditional and innovative financing tools.
WTO and SuSanA can also become delivery mechanisms for many of Jack’s own innovations in the field, including the WTC, which is a series of training programs to impart skill to a new generation of sanitation workers. Although the college has secured classroom space in a partnership with a Singapore polytechnic college, the idea is that it is more a curriculum than a campus. Sanitation organizations can adopt the college curriculum for training programs in their home countries as well. Jack is conceptualizing a franchise of “Toilet Cafes,” which are vogue coffee shops built on a toilet theme.
Jack Sim’s slide presentations on WTO include an image of a small Chinese boy squatting to relieve himself outdoors. “That’s me,” Jack says, “circa 1961.” Sim Juek Wah (aka Jack Sim) was born in 1957 to a very poor family in Singapore before it became an ultra-modern commercial mecca. His life story is a rags-to-riches tale with a surprising twist.
Jack’s father was a shop assistant, whose modest income wasn’t adequate to support his wife and three children, of which Jack was the youngest. Despite very little education, Jack’s mother supplemented the family income with her innate creativity. She took an embroidery class and each evening returned to their village to teach what she learned to the neighborhood women, charging them a dollar each. She took the bus to the downtown department stores and volunteered to have her face made up at the cosmetics counters. Watching every step and chatting with the salesgirls, she taught herself to become a beautician, and even opened a school to train beauticians. She started a business that came to specialize in weddings, doing up brides’ faces and renting gowns, and eventually grew into a large and successful enterprise.
“Watching our mother,” Jack recalls, “we learned that if you are creative, you will never be poor.” Neither Jack nor his brother and sister did particularly well in school. They lacked the attention span and were too playful for the classroom. Instead, they all followed in their mother’s footsteps and went into business. Jack and his brother became partners in several businesses including construction materials, real estate development, and an international school, among others. He credits his business success to having a limited education and the need to devise creative solutions.
Jack’s construction supply business grew and benefited from two international partnerships, one with a French roof-tile company and another with a German manufacturer of partition walls. Jack believes that through these experiences he learned to work out partnerships, build trust, and take an interest in others’ successes. He enjoyed the human side of the business, meeting with customers and working with his staff. At his company he learned that the key to success is to build trusting relationships with everyone. Those skills form the basis of his network approach to WTO.
While he attributes some of his success to that philosophy, he acknowledges that he was also driven by a rivalry with an early competitor. Always trying to outdo each other, at some point the competition between them became an obsession for both. Years later, after each had achieved success in their respective endeavors, Jack called his rival, with whom he hadn’t spoken for years, and invited him to coffee. He offered a truce, and a “no-hard-feelings” olive branch. A huge weight was lifted from his shoulders.
It was at that time, in his early forties, that Jack started asking himself probing questions. Was he going to continue in the ever-more-fierce world of business, probably succeeding, but being driven by a desire to accumulate more wealth? What he really enjoyed about business was the “spiritual exchange” among partners who trusted each other. Couldn’t he be doing more for society, finding a more beneficial outlet for his creativity and rebellious nature? At that time, public debate over the cleanliness of Singapore’s toilets was daily news. Jack stepped forward to found the Restroom Association of Singapore as a way to encourage the staid Singaporean people to broach what was, for Jack, an issue of public responsibility. Soon he knew he had found his calling. As he began networking with fourteen restroom associations from other countries, Jack offered to host a secretariat, which eventually became WTO.