12 June 2014

Don't shit on your own doorstep

I was talking to a water and sanitation programme manager a few weeks ago, who seemed frustrated that these stupid people kept crapping everywhere. Why would you shit on your own doorstep? The programme had several "behaviour change" interventions (horrible phrase, slightly Orwellian no?), but really, how hard should it be to not shit in the open?

One of the great things about economics is that it does not assume that people are just being dumb. It treats people with respect, and assumes first that there is probably a good reason why they are doing something which might seem irrational. I don't really know enough about water and sanitation, but I was suspicious of the idea that these recalcitrant natives just couldn't figure out what was good for them.

Does this paper prove me right?
"latrine use constitutes an externality rather than a pure private gain: It is the open defecation of one’s neighbors, rather than the household’s own practice, that matters most for child survival. The gradient and mechanism we uncover have important implications for child health and mortality worldwide, since 15% of the world’s population defecates in the open. To put the results in context, we find that moving from a locality where everybody defecates in the open to a locality where nobody defecates in the open is associated with a larger difference in child mortality than moving from the bottom quintile of asset wealth to the top quintile of asset wealth."
The problem then is a "simple" collective action problem (simple in the sense of understanding the nature of the problem, not at all simple to solve). This isn't that complicated stuff.

HT: kim yi dionne

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