WASH United’s response to “Make hand-washing sexy”

Most of the times when you’re blogging, you feel like you’re just ranting in cyberspace. Even if a few people read your post, nothing really happens as a result.

I was therefore thrilled and impressed that WASH United’s communications team found my blog post, “Make Hand-Washing Sexy: The Misguided Ventures of NGOs,” and responded with a long and thoughtful comment.

When I wrote the original post, I considered e-mailing WASH United with feedback from someone on the ground in Uganda. Perhaps due to laziness or fear that I would stoke controversy, I chose not to. Now I regret that decision and I am glad that they eventually found my post and responded anyways. So here’s some civil discourse on the role of NGOs in Africa and our perpetual responsibility to question, analyze, and improve our society.


Hi Brian,

Thank you for your reflection. You definitely draw some interesting and relevant conclusions about the disconcerting relationships between NGOs and dependence on foreign aid, however, it would behoove us to respond and explain to some of the points that you put forward:

– Paper waste: we acknowledge that printing flyers may not be the most sustainable way of message promotion, however, these signs were very well received at the CECAFA Cup: fans were using them as banners through which to show their support and cheer for their teams. Additionally, nearly all of our campaign materials get produced in the country they are used, thus supporting the local economy (ironically, it is sometimes even more expensive than producing material here in Germany.) The core of our intention is to make printed materials interesting, worthwhile and educational. In our experience, quite a lot of people take these materials home and even put them on their walls because someone like Didier Drogbar is on it.
– The use of puppets: ‘Handy & Soapy’ are similar to mascots seen at major sporting events. We have had very positive, playful reactions to them by adults as well as children. Going to a football game is a fun and playful experience; we firmly believe that children (as well as adults) like to have fun and play around – we have seen this when we have taken ‘Handy & Soapy’ for walks through the streets of Kampala (and other cities in Africa).
– Instructing ‘Africans’ on how to use soap: most people have soap and use it for cleaning themselves in a shower/bath, to wash their clothes, etc., but not necessarily for washing their hands before eating and after using the toilet. This is not only a problem in Africa, but also in a country like Germany, where only ~50% of men wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet. In Germany, that is despicable (and frankly disgusting) considering every person has access to proper sanitation facilities. However, due to a lack of adequate sanitation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, there are much more dangerous germs in the open and on people’s hands, and therefore washing hands with soap really can be a matter of life and death.
– Spending money on improving public education: WASH United does this with our WASH in Schools (WinS) programmes. Edutaining games are at the core of our WinS programmes. Generally, awareness-raising is a key first step towards better sanitation and hygiene practices, simply because people do not fully comprehend the extent to which the exposure to poop can really, seriously harm them if they are not active about taking care of their own, personal hygiene. Here’s a video that shows how we try to improve public education through WinS (and local events): https://vimeo.com/67113768
– That soap is too expensive: Our Human Rights Officer had discussed this at length with many people in Kampala the last time she was there. According to UNICEF, soap was present in 95 per cent of households in Uganda. Laundry, bathing and washing dishes are seen as the priorities for soap use.http://www.unicef.org/india/reallives_6533.htm What this means is that most households have soap available, but are not intent on using it for handwashing because it would be considered ‘a waste’. Our communication intends to change that.
We can send you more information and concrete studies on this if you would like.
– Networks of dependency and absolving the state’s responsibilities: Yes, this is a very, very big problem that we are trying to counter by creating innovative formats and programs that work and can be adapted by others, including state actors.
– “gung-ho, let’s-fix-this attitude from the USA” – We are not American, nor do we embody that attitude. We always, always, always work with and through local partners. The campaign you saw at the CECAFA Cup was a joint initiative by WASH United and our local partner UWASNET, the Uganda Water & Sanitation Network, with whom we have been working for the last three years.

We sincerely appreciate your feedback because it gives us a good reflection of how we can be perceived by outsiders who do not know us very well. It also offers us space to think critically about the work we do so we can work in better ways to do what we are here to do: supporting our partners in fighting the shit crisis.

Keepin’ it clean,
WASH United


Here’s my original post, published on December 7, 2012:

Last night reminded me of why I love Uganda. The afternoon rain gave way to a beautiful evening with a vibrant sunset, which I enjoyed from the back of a boda boda on my way to Nelson Mandela National Stadium. There I joined 20,000 fans for the semifinal of the CECAFA Tusker Cup and watched Uganda beat Tanzania 3-0.

Amidst blaring vuvuzelas (African horns used to intimidate the opposition), impassioned Ugandans waved flags and sparklers as they cheered on their team and brawled with Tanzanian fans shortly before half time. The handful of riot police mimicked the referee on the field: instead of intervening, they let the fans fight it out. I was a bit worried for the safety of the Tanzanians in the crowd, but the violence quickly subsided and spectators returned their attention to the game.

Throughout the match, vendors weaved through the stands, selling fried chicken, popcorn, beer, soda, and fried grasshoppers (a popular Ugandan delicacy). Towards the end of the first half, they also distributed thousands of massive brochures that were the same size as three sheets of 8.5 by 11-inch paper taped together. I grabbed one because I was intrigued by the glossy color photos.

“Hand & soap need your support!” the ad says. It features a picture of Didier Drogba, Africa’s biggest soccer star, with a small child, who is holding a bar of soap. “Play hard, play with passion. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”

The ad also pictures two cartoon characters, “Handy” and “Soapy,” which were performed by actors in full body suits walking around the sidelines.

Ugandan fans wave the WASH United advertisement. Photo courtesy of WASH United's Facebook page.

Ugandan fans wave the WASH United advertisement. Photo courtesy of WASH United’s Facebook page.

At first glance, I didn’t think much of the brochure or the characters. That’s an odd thing to advertise, I thought. But this wasn’t just a soap company trying to promote their product; it was a German-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) called “WASH United.”

According to their website, WASH United was founded in 2010 with three goals: “Make toilets sexy”; “Promote hand-washing with soap at critical times”; and “Full recognition and realization of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” They have reached over 100 million people in Africa and India through media advertisements, education programs, and sponsoring major sports tournaments, like the CECAFA Tusker Cup.

Trying to promote better sanitation is a critical goal, especially since diarrhea and pneumonia are the two biggest global killers of children under the age of five. While their aims are laudable, however, there are a number of things that bothered me about WASH United’s ad at the soccer game.

First, the environmental impact is obvious. Passing out thousands of giant flyers is an absurd way to get your message across. If anyone from this NGO has ever visited Kampala, then they would have seen the piles of rubbish lining the streets and smelled the ubiquitous stench of garbage being burned. Kampala has virtually no waste management services, so most residents burn their litter or toss it out on the streets. Unless people decide to hang these flyers in their homes and keep them forever, I assume that most of them are already on the side of the road.

Even more disturbing is the demeaning message that this NGO portrays. Featuring characters like “Handy” and “Soapy” might be a good way to encourage kindergarteners to wash their hands, but to the 85% of fans at the soccer game who were grown adult men, this must have seemed ridiculous.

While many American and European-based NGOs operating in Africa are subtly paternalistic, there is nothing subtle about WASH United. Imagine a nonprofit trying to teach sports fans in London or New York how to wash their hands with soap by having cartoon characters at soccer and baseball games. People would be insulted! But somehow, it’s okay for an NGO to spend thousands of euros on ads that teach grown Africans how to use soap.

I imagine that the founders and supporters of WASH United have the best of intentions, but the underlying logic of their campaign seems deeply prejudiced. Not only do they assume that Africans need their help, but they also assume that Africans can’t even do simple tasks—like washing their hands—without foreign intervention.

Stopping childhood pneumonia and diarrhea are pivotal goals, but there are probably more productive ways to encourage better sanitation. If WASH United finds the Ugandan education system so lacking that it doesn’t teach children how to wash their hands with soap, then perhaps it should spend its money improving public education.  Or if it finds that the cost of soap is too expensive for most Ugandans to afford, it should build a soap factory outside of Kampala to create jobs and increase the supply of soap.

People are also unlikely to change their habits just because they see an ad of Didier Drogba using soap. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the process of habit formation as revolving around cues, routines, and rewards. According to Duhigg’s principles, WASH United’s marketing campaign would be more effective if it focused on the cue (“Are your hands dirty and gross? Wash ‘em with soap!”), the routine (“Add a bar of soap to your washing routine”), or the reward (“I love that feeling of clean hands…now I can eat without getting diarrhea!”). I know these slogans aren’t as flashy as a big picture of Drogba, but basic psychology might make them more effective than “Give your all. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”

While I hope that WASH United’s campaign achieves more than I give them credit for, I implore them to think critically about the implications of their messaging. Even when people are trying to help others, the legacy of colonialism still shapes much of our thinking on Africa and continues to perpetuate cycles of aid and dependency. Although NGOs are usually more effective than bilateral aid that gives cash directly to governments, they still establish networks of dependency and absolve the state of certain responsibilities.

Take Uganda as an example. The health sector here is largely bolstered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and various NGOs. These NGOs deliver critical services and medication that are literally saving lives every day. But because people are getting their medical needs taken care of, they aren’t demanding more services from the Ugandan government. The government still collects tax revenue, but now it doesn’t have to invest as much in the health sector and can spend its money on new fighter jets, guns and ammunition, and political projects to entrench the ruling party.

Because the erosion of democracy is an unintended consequence of foreign aid,Daily Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki wrote a column yesterday on why recent donor cuts might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Uganda. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth a read.

Ultimately, I don’t support cutting all foreign aid, because there is important development work to be done here in Africa. However, I think we can be smarter about how we deliver aid. The first steps should be to study a problem and to look at how local populations are already addressing that problem. If a civil society organization, a business, or a governmental entity is already making progress in an area, then we should offer them support instead of starting a brand-new NGO based in Washington, D.C.

And if there is already an international NGO moving forward on an issue, then we shouldn’t create five or six that are doing the same thing. It is a running joke in Kampala that half of the NGOs here are doing the same thing. There is so much NGO overlap that women’s groups and schools will sometimes hear nearly identical presentations about HIV from three different NGOs in the same month.

If we have researched a problem and decided that an NGO is the most effective institution to address it, then we should proceed strategically and ask ourselves, what is our ultimate goal? Is it to provide short-term aid that builds local capacity so that Ugandans can run their own economy? Or is to initiate long-term programs that will continue to be run by foreigners? Unfortunately, the status quo in development tends to follow the latter model, but I don’t think it always has to be this way.

The Ugandans I have met so far are brilliant. There are engineers, doctors, lawyers, and administrators who know how to develop their country, but there are deeply ingrained structural challenges that get in the way. As an American, I appreciate the gung-ho, let’s-fix-this attitude from the USA, but it’s foolish for us to think that our methods are better than Uganda’s. And unfortunately, I have met some foreign NGO workers who give off the air that they are smarter and wiser than most Ugandans.

So before we send naive and inexperienced 22-year-olds abroad to “change the world” (myself included), perhaps we should ask the civil society leaders of these countries what they really want from us. “Foreign expertise” probably doesn’t top very high on the list.


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