Why don’t we spend a penny where it really matters?
We must spend on something that affects individuals, on voters on the ground. Let’s build some toilets
One of the first things you learn, when you first start scrambling, is that when you start sliding (as surely you will) the way out of it is not caution, not braking. You must accelerate to get forward thrust, to get you out of trouble, to get you back on the road.
The economy is no different, particularly when you’re negotiating tough terrain, as we surely are.
We must spend to grow, that’s not a debate. The challenge is to find something so pervasive, so necessary, that there is no question about its priority in our world, where investment resources are scarce and the queue is long. In short, it must be a popular project. It must be aimed at the upliftment of the most poor and vulnerable, and it must create an asset, not a dependency.
In India Prime Minister Modi embarked on a $20bn project to install 111 million more toilets by 2019.
Project “Clean India”, as it was called, has not only been a success (in its own right), but it has had any number of perhaps unintended positive consequences.
The project has increased concrete building sales by over 80% and bathroom and sanitary sales by 50% – no surprises there. Other beneficiaries have been international suppliers like Dettol and Harpic.
Since its inception in October 2014, toilet coverage (excuse the pun) has increased from 38,7% to 88,6% at the end of last month. (Source: Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Bloomberg).
Beyond economics, there are even more important consequences such a improved hygiene, dignity, and the reduction in diseases related to the absence of appropriate sanitation – reportedly responsible for more deaths than HIV, malaria and other top five diseases combined.
You can judge the standards of any public gathering place, be it a mall, an airport, a hotel, a school or even a hospital, by the quality and cleanliness of the amenities it provides.
Why don’t we embark on a similar campaign? We sure as hell need to.
Maybe it’s not toilets, or maybe it’s not just toilets. Our list of infrastructure needs and opportunities is not short. Of course the more socially relevant the project, the broader the access to funding will be, both locally and internationally.
In the end it matters less which of the many infrastructure projects gets to the top of the pile, as long as we start spending, now.
It will have to be a national imperative. It will have to be driven from the top. The multiplier effect of spending will be positively overwhelming – beyond money, into pride, while its absence will be even more crippling.
These kinds of projects are also ideally suitable for public-private partnerships, particularly given the extent of the geographical and commercial reach. Even better than that, localised, personal infrastructure building lends itself to the growth in SMMEs and entrepreneurs right there, where the utility is physically installed. Training and up-skilling will be required (another positive), but once the project gets rolling and things like building kits and instruction manuals are developed, then widely available funding becomes possible.
This kind of initiative invites community involvement, no matter the economic profile or state of repair of the specific local environment. We are not going to catch up unless we all get involved. Whether it is as simple as cutting the lawn or pulling the weeds out of a neglected school sports field, or as complicated as digging a trench for reticulated services, the rewards will be immediate and obvious – it’s an easy sell.
Limited funds do not always result in wisdom in the allocation of resources. The back-to-basics repair and build money is somehow harder to find than the immediate gratification, fashionable, socially competitive stuff.
We’re all like that. Sometimes you just have to buy an ice cream to cope. Across the world, I’ve read, there are more people with access to a cellphone than a toilet: go figure.
SA’s real GDP fell by 2,2% in the first quarter of 2018, the largest decline in about a decade. This was to be expected, given the 3,1% surge in the last quarter of 2017. Nonetheless, even though GDP grew by 0,8% year on year, that won’t be nearly enough to power us out of the slide.
So we must spend and, given that there is a general election only months away, we must spend on something that effects individuals, on voters on the ground.
Let’s build some toilets?
Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.