Toilet, WC, Latrine?

By Gemma North, KF9, Cambodia

What type of toilet facility does the household have?

A. Pit latrine, septic tank, other without septic tank, public toilet, shared toilet, or other

B. Connected to sewerage

C. Open land

D. None

Latrine, Other, Open land or None?

I had spent the last two weeks pouring over material on the Cambodia Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPI) scorecard from which the above question is excerpted.  However, I was still unsure of how–were I a client of CREDIT MFI taking the PPI survey–I would distinguish between the last two answer options.  What is the difference between “Open land” and “None”?  Maybe, I pondered, “None” has a different cultural meaning that I am not able to understand as a foreigner?

The PPI is administered through a ten question scorecard–in this case based on data from the 2004 Cambodian Socio-Economic Survey–that allows organizations to assess the poverty level of their clients.  This in turn can help an MFI target certain populations and refine loan products to meet their borrowers’ needs (for more information on PPI, check out Josh Weinstein’s post Who is Poor? Defining Poverty).  The tool is relatively efficient and can be administered by local staff.  However, as one of the first MFIs in Cambodia to begin conducting a trial of PPI since its initial release in October 2009, clearing up lingering questions has taken more time than expected.  After emails, a phone call, and finally a two-hour visit with my coworkers to the Cambodian Ministry of Planning’s Data User Service Center, we received our answer.  As it turns out, “Open land” refers to when families go to the bathroom outside in one specific place, “None” is when they still go outdoors but not in a designated spot.

A few days later I discussed this issue with the director from a nonprofit that has a short term goal of distributing 10,000 affordable sanitary latrines to rural Cambodians.  He described how his organization organizes a slightly humorous educational session in each village and the inevitable moment when all the villagers realize they are each defecating in one another’s fields–or primary food source!

In addition to toilet facilities, the PPI scorecard poses questions on various areas such as children’s education, building materials, type of cooking fuel and household assets; alluding to the complexity and various causes of poverty.  In Cambodia, the rate of people living below the poverty line is about 39% and the rural poor make up more than 90% of this group.  In urban areas, 25% of the population lives below the poverty line and in Phnom Penh this plunges to a mere 5% (Cambodia Economic Watch 2004).  In each setting, poverty is manifested in a variety of ways.  Although a rural family may earn less than their urban counterpart, they are able to cultivate their own food but are reliant on dependable weather patterns for a successful harvest.  These families are also located relatively far from a clinic or hospital and children have to travel longer distances to attend school.  In an urban area, families may be closer to these facilities and live in houses that are built out of slightly more durable materials–such as wood or tin instead of palm leaves.  However, they are dependent on finding a job where they can earn enough income to cover food and other expenses.  Like the rural poor, they may also lack toilet facilities but, rather than having the option of “Open Land,” are forced to find other alternatives.  One such option is plastic bags or “flying toilets,” as they have been dubbed in urban slums where people throw the bags out of sight.

Although the rural villagers previously mentioned and the families living in the slums of Phnom Penh would all tick off option D or “None,” in response to the PPI scorecard question on toilet facilities, the other factors which characterize their level of economic wellbeing—the ability to send their children to school, how they cook their food, whether they travel by foot, moto or bicycle–would also be taken into account and help provide a more global picture of their situation.  Thus, by piloting the PPI scorecard, CREDIT MFI hopes to better understand their clients’ economic situations and ways in which their loan products and non-financial services can help address the multiple causes of poverty.

Latrine, septic tank or sewerage?

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