Yes, signs like this can make Americans smile. But, in truth, clean water and sanitation are serious issues, and it’s great to see countries around the world placing emphasis on the health of children.
Every month when I open the bill for my home phone, I always debate, should I drop the land line? Since cell phones (and, yes, I have an iPhone) have become the norm for everyday communications, why spend the money for a home phone I hardly use?
I know I’m not the only one in the U.S. having this personal debate; yet, in many developing countries another debate plays out. Cell phones have been a positive boon to many developing countries that have a limited communications infrastructure. When I lived in Somalia, I never answered my home phone because it was never for me – no one I knew had a personal line.
Seemingly overnight, cell phones gave developing countries an opportunity to make a leap forward. Improved communications offer benefits on multiple levels: health, economic, educational and social. Uganda and Kenya are opening up more telecommunications and telebanking opportunities for its citizens via mobile technology. As mobile catches on, it will be possible for people to pay their bills, their loans, even their taxes via their cell phones.
Within the last decade it seems that even the poor now have a cell phone, or access to one. But cell phones and minutes cost money. And that’s the debate in developing countries. Families are weighing whether to pay for a phone versus a toilet – and the cell phone has won.
When I travel the developing world for ChildFund, I sometimes meet families who have a cell phone (no iPhones; just inexpensive mobile phones) but no indoor toilet. Or they might have access to cell phone in their neighborhood but also have to share a community latrine versus having private latrine for the family.
Poor sanitation is a huge problem in many countries. Some 24,000 children die every year from diarrhea and other preventable illnesses. So many serious health problems stem from lack of hygiene and sanitation. And, yet, toilets are often not a priority.
Sometimes it’s the multiple benefits that cell phones bring to a family that tip the scale to spend limited resources on a mobile phone versus a toilet. Other times, it’s who holds the decision-making power - clean, accessible toilets are more important for women than men, but women may not hold the family purse strings.
But, honestly, sometimes it’s a matter of owning the latest thing – people living in poverty share the same human “gadget” desire as the rest of us. The challenge: how can we make toilets a highly desirable status symbol, more important than the coolest gadget?
Kenya’s growing mobile phone network.