You use it whenever you need it. You want it to be clean. You sit down, you stand, or you squat. You use paper, or maybe water. You flush… and whatever your business there may have been, it disappears. You leave, you wash your hands. So simple… you take it for granted.

If you’re lucky.

Any traveler to another continent soon learns that the toilet is a highly cultural thing. Sanitation is a cultural practice. Sometimes even a trip from one country to another is enough to cause mild shock and awe – for instance, how every German holiday-maker in France feels when they (re-)discover the French squat toilet. Or how a French traveler feels when discovering the German “Flachspüler“. Or the Irish, when voting on the Lisbon Treaty. Toilets are deeply culturally embedded, so much that Slavoj Žižek has a special theory about their differences and their effects on national mindsets, politics, and philosophical traditions.

Westerners have a lot to learn

But despite all the cultural differences, as global events like World Toilet Day show, the problem of toilets and sanitation is increasingly addressed at a transnational level. November 19th is “World Toilet Day“, organised by the WTO (World Toilet Organisation), designed to draw attention to the lack of adequate sanitation faced by 2.6 billion people, over 1/3 of the world’s population.

Transnational toilet governance?

Awareness-raising about sanitation (increasingly across national and cultural borders) comes in all shapes and forms, often verging on tasteless, in a shock marketing style. “Give a crap about human rights“, “talk sh*t all week” – hey, whatever serves the purpose. But with regards to this “don’t eat shit” officially WTO-endorsed video from Singapore, I am inclined to play the is it racist? game.

Was skin colour central to the message? (Only watch if you have already eaten)

Thankfully, water and sanitation are an increasingly recognised objective for development aid programmes. For instance, the USA reports having raised its water and sanitation funding by 82 percent in three years; but the support is still not consistent, and with $495 million, it still only adds up to 19 cents on average for each person lacking sanitation, per year. So, while transnational development aid may be increasingly addressing the issue, the figurative drop in the ocean still comes to mind.

More promisingly, perhaps, thanks to the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC), since 2002 a Human Right to Water and Sanitation is recognised at a transnational level. Legal scholars, above all by the late Erik Bluemel, have clarified what this means: “Categorizing a right to water as a human right means that: fresh water is an entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a charitable basis”. But the codification of the Human Right in actual domestic law has – with very few exceptions such as South Africa’s lifeline water supply – not yet provided a basis for national or regional water policies. And even in South Africa, the free rights-based assured lifeline supply is far from ensuring a fair and equitable supply of water – and doesn’t include sanitation.

While such activities as the codification of the Human Right, holding a World Toilet Day, or increasing water and sanitation aid are far short of an establishment of a transnational toilet governance regime, they clearly signal moves in this direction. Despite the national differences in sanitary culture and practice, the transnational level is slowly but increasingly being involved in the governance of who takes a dump where, and how.

My crap is your crap, too

There are good reasons for sanitary practices not being treated as an individual issue. Not that it matters much in Tokyo or Bombay how I defecate in Cologne. But: the business of water sanitation is already a transnational one. While water privatisation has become less fashionable in recent years after hitting snags in countries like Bolivia, its isn’t off the agenda yet. So-called “public-private partnerships” are still the World Bank’s favoured solution. To address this, policy-making and advocacy activities have to be equally transnational and address a global public.

Furthermore, at another level, water and sanitation in and of themselves have to be dealt with not as individual, but as public problems. The argument in my recent MPIfG Discussion Paper, and of a paper soon to appear in 3.2 of the Journal of Infrastructure Development, is that (increasingly fashionable) microfinance models for water and sanitation miss the point. The reason is that – pardon the language – crap is a “public bad”, the opposite of a public good, and not a private issue.

Consider your office toilet: if one person uses it improperly, everyone in the office suffers. Now consider your neighbourhood, city, or region. If everyone disposes of their human waste whichever way they want to, everyone suffers. The inhabitants of a nearby slum have to use open land to “go”, so waste seeps into the groundwater from which everyone’s supply comes, the flies which land on your plate land on open sewage beforehand, etc., etc… Shouldn’t you be working to make sure they have decent sanitation, too? Wouldn’t you even be willing to pay for this, to lower the costs for yourself (for diseases, bottled water, etc.) as well as for everyone else?

(The same applies to basic private sanitation practices like hand-washing, where one unsanitary individual can infect many others.)

Sadly, policies currently on the agenda, like the “Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2011” waiting to be passed by the US Congress, show no awareness of this. The act formulates its implementation aims as encouraging “best practices for mobilizing and leveraging the capacity of business, governments, organizations, and civil society in forming public-private partnerships”… “business” is the first actor it thinks of.

As long as it is believed that sanitation is a private problem for private actors to solve, the public bad of inadequate sanitation will not be addressed inclusively, and therefore the levels of sanitation and hygiene attained in rich countries will not be attained elsewhere. Perhaps an increasing involvement of the transnational level in formulating water and sanitation policy in future may provide a better orientation? World Toilet Day is a day to think about this.