01 May 2010

The Global Phones-to-Toilets Ratio

Excerpt from Change.org, 15 April 2010

'Right now, India has more cell phones than toilets. That's the headline buzzing over the wires today, thanks to the latest phones-to-toilets ratio released by the United Nations. It's certainly a dramatic factoid. But it's not just true of India's 1.2 billion-strong population — this lopsided statistic is true around the globe, as well.

It's a "tragic irony" that India is wealthy enough to provide its people with so many phones, and yet so many "cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet," says the director of the UN think tank behind the new report, Zafar Adeel. It's an irony that applies globally, too: this year, the International Telecommunication Union reports, the number of mobile subscriptions is expected to surpass five billion. By contrast, some 2.6 billion people — or nearly 40% of the world population — live in conditions with dismal sanitation. Fully 16% of the world is still forced to defecate in public every day...

But why does the number of cell phones so radically outstrip the number of toilets out there, when the latter are literally necessary to keep populations alive?

To begin with, there's the question of cost. In its report detailing India's situation, the UN estimates it costs $300 to construct a toilet, once the costs associated with labor, materials and personnel are factored in. (Though it's also true that dollar for dollar, investments in sanitation are among the best out there, in terms of reduced poverty, improved health and productivity.) A handset, on the other hand, is sold in India by Reliance Communications for under $25, and a user can make phone calls for as low as $0.01 a minute anywhere in the nation.

And though the mobile sector has seen massive private investment — thanks in many countries to telecommunications deregulation — few corporations are clamoring to provide better sanitation for the poor. Meanwhile on the aid side, the less photogenic aspects of refuse and toilets have made the push for improved sanitation a decidedly unglamorous one.

Between their ability to provide credit and act as virtual soothsayers for farmers, cell phones deserve all the praise they get as a development tool. But when you measure their growth against the number of missing toilets in the world — and the millions of annual deaths caused as a result — the picture starts to look a whole lot more sober.'

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