A look at a latrine

I’ve been up in the Panjshir, evaluating an aid project. Latrines, water supply and health promotion training.

I do wonder what the Afghans made of it. A group of men, wandering around their village. One of them bangs on the door of a yard and calls out that we want to look at their toilet (imagine the converse: you are sitting at home, and a group of Afghans bang on the door and call out they want to see your bathroom).

A small boy is deputised to run around the yard and hustle any women inside so the strange men (and I mean strange in several ways) won’t see them. We are then permitted entrance. My Afghan colleagues demure, but I am here to evaluate whether this significant sum of money has been well spent or not, so I stride over to the newly built latrine and switch aside the sacking that acts as a door and disappear inside. All that can be heard now is me taking a long deep sniff.

Some latrines barely smell at all, and they are clean. Fresh almost. That could be a sign of a well used, well built, properly ventilated latrine. A tick for the book. Or it could be a sign that the latrine is not used at all. Sometimes it’s not so hard to tell: I have discovered latrines used as storerooms, as chicken pens, as dog houses. One had a 500 pound bomb sat upright it in. Well, the answer there is obvious. But clean empty latrines?

So, undeterred, I exit and walk around to the back, where the cover is, where the dried crap is meant to be dug out and spread on the fields for fertiliser. It is no fun, examining a large pile of someone else’s poo. But it is a good way to tell if a latrine is being used or not. Except if the little chamber is dark. It can be hard to see then. The answer to that is the squat down and look deep inside, trying to assess the freshness of a pile of drying shit (something I have done in many meetings in countless boardrooms). If I was really keen, I would have brought a torch.

I am not that keen. I do not want to look like someone really freaky.

Meanwhile, the Afghans, both my colleagues and the local people look away embarrassed, or stare incredulously, or make small talk. ‘Where is he from? Ahh, Australia. That is a good country. Hmm, yes, a very good country.’ It would be easier if I didn’t speak the language, then I could be referred to obliquely, through a third party. But I force them to get involved, I turn to them, ask, ‘who uses this latrine? Who? You? Your family? All of them? Do you empty it? When did you last empty it? What do you use the stuff for?’   I am hard to ignore.

Anyway, I get the information I want, and we move on to another site. I have a phrase for all this in my mind, which makes it easier to hold together. DOA. Directly Observed Assessment. You want to know if an aid project has made any difference, you need to get close to it. Smell it. See it. Be ruthless with it. Most people who deliver aid want it to have all worked as intended. They want to know their efforts have been useful and valuable. They don’t want it to have failed, and they generally don’t want you to discover too many failings. But good aid is not about making people happy.

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5 thoughts on “A look at a latrine

  1. Well put – the DOA approach is certainly not complicated but is often lacking. I want to see the photo of the toilet with the bomb in it though!

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