Community leaders demonstrate the importance of open defecation-free villages at Ithanga ward, Murang’a County, Kenya in 2019. Photo by: Jason Florio / SHF

“Let’s get on with it.” That’s the message Dominic O’Neill, executive director of the newly launched Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, has for the sector on World Toilet Day.

“We know what needs to happen and we have a lot of good examples, but we now need to take it to scale and to bring about this much-needed change,” he said, adding that with progress on access to safely managed sanitation “well off-track” and “significantly overdue,” a change in collective behavior and commitment from all is vital.

Around the world, more than 4 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines, and 3 billion don’t have a basic hand-washing facility with water and soap at home.

“SDG target 6.2 is well off track. On the current trajectory, it will be 2070 before we achieve it.”

— Dominic O’Neill, executive director, Sanitation and Hygiene Fund

To help tackle this, The Sanitation and Hygiene Fund was launched earlier this week. Working with donors and other partners, it aims to enhance the international response to the sanitation, hygiene, and menstrual health crisis by providing grants to low-income countries for community-based solutions.

O’Neill said now is the time for a different type of approach.

“Not just because of COVID-19, but this is a very significant moment where the whole world is talking about the need for good basic hygiene in a way that we couldn’t have dreamed of before and they have a different level of understanding.”

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Speaking to Devex, O’Neill explained why progress has been waning on Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 on sanitation and hygiene and the gaps this new fund can help to plug.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the status of progress around SDG 6, and how does its progress impact other SDGs?

We know that in particular, SDG target 6.2 is well off track. On the current trajectory, it will be 2070 before we achieve it. Presently, we see nothing that is changing business as usual in a way that will make the difference. Goodwill and effort alone will not get us to our collective goal. Our feeling is that something isn’t working in the current approach and we want to change that.

This isn’t just about hitting that SDG on safely managed sanitation. We know the outcomes of having better sanitation and hygiene are much broader including the impact on girls’ education, gender equality, reducing sexual and gender-based violence, and on critical health indicators.

One of the other outcomes that we want to really focus on is the economic impact, not only the negative impact of people getting ill from preventable diseases and not being able to go to work but the economic potential and opportunity within the sanitation economy.

Speaking at the launch of the new Sanitation and Hygiene Fund on Nov. 17, Executive Director Dominic O’Neill said, “We know that money, well utilized, has the ability to drive positive and lasting change.” Photo by: SHF

If sanitation plays such an obviously central role in development, why are we not making adequate progress?

The sector is often poorly understood and lacks a champion. We’re hoping to turn over some typical thinking about sanitation because this isn’t just about the health indicators. This is a matter of basic human rights. This is about the dignity and ability to carry out normal bodily functions in a safe, hygienic, and dignified way so we need to raise awareness. We’ve done a lot of work over the last few years looking at the human rights element, and that’s a very important part of the approach for us.

This is an SDG target, but it’s also a very basic human right. Because the case we’ve made hasn’t perhaps been so compelling, finance also hasn’t flowed to the scale that is needed to make a significant impact. We need to start explaining this issue better, in terms of the national and local benefit from a health perspective, from an education perspective, a gender perspective, and also from an economic perspective.

The Sanitation and Hygiene Fund launched two days ago. What is it, and what are its aims?

We’re evolving out of an organization that’s existed for 30 years: the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, which has been very successful and for the last 10 years has run a global sanitation fund, piloting a lot of equality-based approaches. About a year ago, there was a strategic review, and it was decided that there were two issues around why we weren’t seeing the change in the indicators and why we weren’t having the desired impact. The sector needs to be able to go to scale, and the current approach risks us going through pilot after pilot and project after project.

So this is the basis of our business model: we will raise funds, then provide grants to country governments, who will also co-finance. They’re using domestic resources, but we also hope to crowd in other potential investors, non-traditional donors, and countries that may not normally participate in this type of fund. We’re looking, for example, at Gulf donors, philanthropic funding, impact investment, social investors, and the like.

Through our financing, we will encourage and incentivize governments to present a nationally costed plan for sanitation, hygiene, and menstrual health. [This is] a result of multistakeholder dialogue, and therefore country-owned, implemented, and monitored, which means it’s their plan, it’s based on their priorities, it aligns with their funding priorities, and with their own systems. We’re not doing projects, we’re basically inserting sanitation and hygiene into their routine development and investment planning and catalyzing it with external and funds from different sources.

There have been so many good examples of solutions, however, we’re just not seeing that long-term sustainability and the sustained impact over time. That’s because too many approaches have either been projectized as short-term interventions or there isn’t a local buy-in so once that activity stops, it doesn’t continue and behaviors aren’t changed, and facilities fall into disrepair.

“Because the case we’ve made hasn’t perhaps been so compelling, finance also hasn’t flowed to the scale that is needed to make a significant impact. We need to start explaining this issue better.”

How is COVID-19 affecting the work of the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund?

Definitely, it’s given this issue a major push. As you can imagine, the world is focused on finding a vaccine. However, people [are realizing] a vaccine is not a straightforward issue and that not everybody can afford, or has access to, a mask or can do social distancing. So, you’re left with a very basic and important behavior, which is your ability to frequently wash your hands.

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We’re yet to see the definitive entry points. We think we have a good proposition which can improve the facilities in both health centers and in education, and at the household level. We are exploring funding options to secure further support to be able to turn our plans into reality.

As the executive director of the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, why did you take on this job?

My career started in environmental health. In 1996, I took a voluntary service overseas placement in Namibia working on sanitation and health education in a district health team, and afterwards, I joined the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development as their environmental health adviser in 2002. I then went off in different aspects of my career including heading up DFID country offices in Yemen, Sierra Leone, and Nepal and I was on the board of the African Development Bank for three years representing the U.K. government. This role brings me to where my early passion and career started.

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