A surprise can be a call to action
Today in New Delhi, India
Feb 13, 2019-Wednesday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

A surprise can be a call to action

When you first confront a difficult reality, you get surprised, then you get outraged, then you get activated. That’s how the world gets better

analysis Updated: Feb 13, 2019 08:52 IST
Bill and Melinda Gates,Clean India,Philanthropy
Next-generation toilets—along with important initiatives like Swachh Bharat—won’t just save lives. They’ll also improve them, especially for women and girls(Yogendra Kumar/HT)

Does the world today look like what you imagined a decade ago?

For us, the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, the world as a whole continues to make the broad progress we hoped and expected to see. Many trendlines from the last decade continue their same positive trajectory. Fewer people are dying from preventable diseases. More children are surviving to adulthood, and more girls are going to school every year. The number of Indians living in extreme poverty has fallen from 306 million in 2011 to 70 million today.

On the other hand, unexpected events have reshaped the world in a way that no one (including us!) saw coming. That would be true for any random year that you pick — but last year, it seemed like unforeseen forces had an outsized impact. From especially devastating natural disasters to women achieving historic firsts in male-dominated fields, 2018 felt to us like a series of surprises.

A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. When you realise that the realities of the world don’t match your expectations, it gnaws at you.

Twenty-five years ago, a surprise changed the course of our lives. While reading the newspaper, we saw an article that made a shocking statement: hundreds of thousands of kids in poor countries were dying from diarrhoea. That revelation stopped us in our tracks. We sent a copy of the article to Bill’s dad and said, “Maybe we can do something about this.”

That surprise was one of the most important steps in our journey to philanthropy. It helped crystallise our values: we believe in a world where innovation is for everyone — where no child dies from a disease it’s possible to prevent. But what we saw was a world still shaped by inequity.

In our Annual Letter this year, we wrote about nine things that have surprised us along this journey. Some helped us to see that the status quo needs to change, like the fact that data collection can be sexist and often doesn’t take women and girls into account. Others underscore that transformation is happening already, like the notion that textbooks are becoming obsolete thanks to new technology.

One of the surprises we wrote about is particularly resonant here in India: Toilets haven’t changed in over a century.

If you could travel back in time to the mid-19th century, the toilets you’d encounter wouldn’t look so different from ones you’d find in 2019. That’s because the flush toilet has long been a perfectly adequate tool for anyone who lives in a place with a decent sewer system.

But because these toilets require sewer systems — and because sewer systems are expensive to build and require a lot of water to operate — the world needs to find sanitation solutions that work everywhere. That’s why, nearly eight years ago, we challenged engineers and scientists around the world to reinvent the toilet — and why we organised a toilet fair in Beijing last year to showcase the results.

Unlike today’s commodes, these toilets don’t need to be attached to a sewer system. They’re essentially tiny treatment plants capable of killing pathogens and rendering waste safe on their own. Many of them even turn human faeces and urine into useful by-products, like fertilizer for crops and water for hand washing.

Next-generation toilets — along with important initiatives like Swachh Bharat — won’t just save lives. They’ll also improve them, especially for women and girls. Life without a toilet is hard for anyone, but it tends to be women and girls who suffer most.

We’ve both met women who have suffered kidney damage from holding in urine all night to avoid a risky trip to dangerous public facilities. We’ve met others whose only place to defecate is in an open field, so they restrict their food intake all day and wait for cover of darkness to relieve themselves in relative privacy. There’s also some qualitative evidence that suggests that girls are more likely to miss school during their periods when their school doesn’t have a decent toilet. A reinvented toilet would be a long-overdue game changer for them.

We know firsthand that a surprise can be a powerful call to action — just as the article about children dying from diarrhoea was for us. When you first confront a difficult reality, you get surprised, then you get outraged, then you get activated. That’s how the world gets better.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates are co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This article is adapted from their 2019 Annual Letter

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 12, 2019 22:38 IST