When I arrived in Bangladesh, on a pre-project mission for the Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA) to improve rural access to sanitation, I found out that I had just missed out on a huge celebration.
South Asia is a region in which open defecation has historically been a major health and environmental problem. But the Bangladeshi government and its partners have taken a bold step to not only decrease, but nearly eliminate this unhygienic practice, used by an estimated 34 percent of the population in 1990. Just before I arrived, Bangladesh and the water and sanitation community were celebrating the successful culmination of an open defecation free initiative, making Bangladesh a role model for other countries in the region.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that in many communities in rural Bangladesh, people are still using old, poorly constructed or broken latrines. As a result, latrine pits may leak into the ground and further contaminate the water table, and people are exposed to harmful bacteria.
For years, only one latrine model was available in rural Bangladesh—a basic design from the 1970s. New and better quality latrine models have recently been introduced to the market, but affordability for the poor is still an issue. Our objective at GPOBA was to design a results-based financing project to make clean sanitation accessible to those people who can’t afford the new toilets. Specifically, we’re working with the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) to build on their initiative to create a competitive sanitation market, alongside micro-finance institutions (MFIs), making effective sanitation options - like hygienic latrines - affordable and accessible.
Working with colleagues from WSP, including our Bangladesh-based task leader, I met with MFI representatives to discuss a new model of sanitation financing. This model uses output-based aid to help connect their institutions with low-income households and small construction firms to provide affordable household loans for the installation of hygienic latrines.
As a result of our meetings, we were able to get the Association for Social Advancement (ASA)—one of the largest microfinance groups in Bangladesh, and the world—on board with the project, as well as a wholesale microfinance facility called Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), and twenty other smaller MFIs.
Usually MFIs want to provide loans for ventures targeted to more profitable activities, guaranteed to generate income. Our output-based aid approach helps provide security to MFIs because we grant a subsidy that bridges the affordability gap for poor households. We’re working with WSP to also give support in the form of technical assistance, including helping to create awareness and demand, so that MFIs aren’t doing this by themselves.
Key to the success of our mission was our intrepid task leader, who used to work for ASA, and has a great rapport with the local MFI representatives. As they themselves said, “She’s one of us.” Together, we were able to explain how our project worked, what the requirements were for participation, and why our project could be a win-win for all involved.
Also important was the fact that GPOBA has been supporting a similar project in renewable energy in rural Bangladesh since 2010. That project has been a great success, benefitting both the consumer households and partner MFIs. Because of this, we could demonstrate that our model could work in Bangladesh, since it has already been tested in a different sector.
All the representatives we met expressed genuine concern for continuing to better the sanitation situation in the country. Their decision-making was clearly based on how our proposed project might make the greatest impact on their country and its people.
Wherever we went, we experienced the amazing hospitality and spirit of the Bangladeshi people, beginning with our task leader, who invited us to her home and made us a delicious (albeit quite spicy for a girl from the southern U.S.) dinner.
One of my chief regrets about our trip was that we arrived in Bangladesh during a somewhat alarming time. Bangladesh is generally a very peaceful country, but the week we were there coincided with the murder of two foreign nationals, including one aid worker, with uncertainty about who may be connected to these attacks. Therefore, foreign visitors were advised to be cautious and to remain in the capital city.
This meant we were not able to have as much contact with potential beneficiaries as we would have liked. And yet we know that this kind of contact is important, so we can be sure we’re taking beneficiaries’ needs into account. The question is: how is this possible while also ensuring the security of teams working in these scenarios, especially in other countries far more affected by conflict and violence than Bangladesh?
One thing I do know is that at GPOBA, we’re committed to innovation and listening to our beneficiaries, so I feel confident that we can find a way to answer this important question.
Update: Jessica is currently on mission in Bangladesh for further preparation of this project, and we are looking forward to the next update!
 Bangladesh has 99% national sanitation coverage: Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water – 2015 Update and MDG Assessment. UNICEF and World Health Organization 2015