Dr. Maura O’Neill is the Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Counselor to the Administrator at USAID.
In 2008, the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire brought the issue of unsafe sanitation to the silver screen. Audiences cringed as young Jamal is forced to jump into the open pit of feces in which he was previously seen relieving himself. But such scenes are not simply fodder for movie-goers and awards ceremonies. Today, 2.6 billion people lack access to safe sanitation. Of these, 1.1 billion people practice open defecation, meaning they have no sanitation facilities at all. Unsafe sanitation is not only unpleasant, it can be deadly. Improper waste disposal can pollute the drinking water supply, spreading water-borne disease. More than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and those with some access cannot always rely on it being available or clean.
These failings have a profound effect on the health of people around the world. Proper access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services is critical to saving lives. Contaminated drinking water infects people with diarrheal disease, typhoid, polio, guinea worm disease, schistosomiasis, Hepatitis A and E, and cholera. Diarrhea alone kills almost 2 million people around the world every year, of which 1.5 million are children. Children suffering from these diseases can become undernourished, resulting in stunting and often, death. Inadequate access to basic WASH services also damages the economy: water-related disease is costly, sick workers are less productive, weak children cannot attend school, and improper waste disposal can harm farmland, making it more difficult to grow food. Women and girls are disproportionately affected as they often must travel miles to collect water for the family, giving up the chance to work or go to school. While USAID and partners have been working to improve basic WASH services to save lives around the globe, we still strive to promote the importance of activities such as hand washing and point-of-use chlorination, introduce life-saving solutions at lower cost, and elevate the importance of sanitation and hygiene in the WASH triad. Simple, inexpensive measures that are massively deployed can save millions of lives.
Earlier today, Silvia Mathews-Burwell, President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and I announced WASH for Life, a $17 million initiative which aims to address these very challenges. With co-funding from the Gates Foundation, USAID will use Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), which produces development outcomes more effectively and more cost-efficiently while managing risks and obtaining leverage by focusing on rigorous testing, evidence, and scale, to solicit breakthrough ideas that will dramatically improve access to WASH services for the poor. Over the next four years, WASH for Life aims to identify and rigorously test new WASH technologies and delivery models, and then scale proven successes across multiple countries to reach millions of people. WASH for Life is particularly interested in potential solutions which: operate in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya and/or Nigeria; address issues in the sanitation and hygiene sectors in particular; and affect people earning under $2 a day.
We view this partnership as an important validation of DIV’s approach, which systematically seeks, tests, incubates, and mainstreams cost-effective, breakthrough ideas to substantially improve the lives of people in developing countries. Leadership through this type of innovation is a key piece of USAID Forward and DIV aims to be both a model and incubator for other donors, host countries, and organizations looking to use proven successes to impact people in developing countries. We are proud to have the support of the Gates Foundation as we seek to ensure that open defecation is restricted only to the movie screens of theaters worldwide.