Reflections on the FSM6 International Conference

Latrine community business operators with SNV staff in the field viewing latrine infrastructure

Celebrating 10 Years of FSM Heroes - Past, Present and Future


Water for Women WASH specialist, Dr. Matthew Bond reflects on the FSM6 2021 Virtual Conference.


FSM6 — an international faecal sludge management (FSM) conference delivered by the FSM Alliance — was a great opportunity to get excited about faecal sludge (and for each of us to divide the world into those who spell it 'faecal' and those for whom it is 'fecal'). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have really brought a sharp focus to the idea of thinking about where our excrement ends up. As a sector, we were once pretty excited about households and institutions simply having access to a toilet; we’ve now moved to the point of thinking beyond the toilet and about sanitation as a cycle — not a linear process that ends with a hole in the ground. 

This was my first opportunity to attend one of the FSM global conferences. I noted that the first International FSM conference in 2011 preceded the SDGs and we can thank events like that one for building the momentum to think about sanitation holistically. FSM6 was a virtual conference, increasing the opportunities for broad participation. The Water for Women Fund sponsored attendance for 11 delegates — eight staff from five different civil society organisation (CSO) partners, one from a research partner and two Fund Coordinator team members.

The Fund was especially prominent in two sessions:

  • ‘Women in WASH,’ which the Fund Manager presented, and
  • ‘Inclusive, Sustainable FSM – Towards a Transformative Future,’ a session hosted by Water for Women.  

The hosted session clearly aligned with the Fund’s interest in transformation more generally, and provided an opportunity for seven partners to share their insights into how we might tackle FSM. It explored safely managed sanitation in the context of SDG6 and the range of transformations we need to achieve the SDG targets in ways that leave no one behind.

As with every conference, FSM6 had its own focus, built around three thematic areas:

  • Gender, equality and inclusive sanitation service delivery
  • Service delivery for low-income communities, and
  • The role of sanitation and FSM actors.

And, as with every conference, no doubt each of the delegates generated their own collection of new ideas and issues to explore.

The Water for Women hosted session on Day 1 was the first session I joined, and it raised a question that I carried with me throughout the rest of the sessions. Citizens or consumers — how should we think of ourselves from an FSM perspective? The question emerged from the presentations of SNV’s Tashi Dorji and Thrive Network’s Hanh Nguyen. Tashi invoked the concept of ‘informed citizens,’ arguing that building the knowledge of citizens about the need for, and approaches to, FSM were central to sustained, effective management. Rana Abdel-Sattar from iDE affirmed the importance of knowledge, noting that iDE’s research into FSM in Cambodia revealed a general lack of FSM knowledge amongst households, and that several of the session presentations had highlighted the need to increase knowledge and education around FSM.

Engaging community members as consumers was also highlighted in Hanh’s presentation, and she explained how Thrive sought to build commercial demand for sanitation products and services that managed faecal sludge safely. Market-based approaches that view people as consumers are now commonplace in the sanitation sector, and this is certainly true within Water for Women. All CSO partners promote some aspect of sanitation marketing, looking at how to raise demand for sanitation goods and services and to stimulate the market to meet that growing need. There are some compelling reasons to apply a market lens to sanitation; people value what they pay for and purchasing a sanitation good or service vests an interest in seeing that it is used and maintained. Hanh expanded on the idea of sanitation consumers by arguing that ‘FSM requires participation of stakeholders at every step of the value chain.’ We’re accustomed to the idea of stakeholders in the development sector and Hahn’s presentation, alongside those of her Water for Women colleagues, made me wonder when we should see FSM stakeholders as citizens and when as consumers. It also raised a question for me about how we conceive the FSM value chain. How might we respond if — at the end of all our innovative and well-researched interventions — we agree that adequate FSM comes at a cost? While there may well be a strong economic return on FSM, perhaps the financial return is negative. If that’s the case, who needs to bear the costs — consumers or citizens?

As a sector, we realise that not everyone who needs a service can afford to purchase it, so we are now comfortable with supplementing our market approaches with subsidies for vulnerable people. This is clearly critical to leaving no one behind, which is such an important aspect of Water for Women. The challenge with subsidies is managing them in ways that do not undermine demand and distort the market. This is particularly important with a private good. FSM, however, might be better thought of as a public good that serves the community, where benefits accrue beyond the household. I think this highlights the importance of us applying the lens of ‘informed citizens;’ the private sector may provide the service, but  our ‘consumer’ may be the state rather than households. As I was reflecting on the Water for Women presentations, it occurred to me that unlike a household asset (for example a toilet or handwashing facility), people are unlikely to request a free or subsidised pit emptying service when it isn’t needed —after all, it’s generally quite an inconvenient process — so the risk of distorting the market is small.

These ideas of effective public management of FSM services were brought together neatly in a presentation from Aasim Mansuri of the Centre for Water and Sanitation (CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India) as part of Track 2 — Service Delivery for Low-income Communities. Several Water for Women colleagues remarked on this presentation in their feedback. Aasim described a project he was working on in Maharashtra to provide city-wide desludging services in two small cities. Formative research had shown that on-demand desludging initiated by households resulted in pits only being emptied every eight to ten years, well after many were full. This resulted in very high desludging costs, which further demotivated households from emptying their septic tanks. The project worked with the city governments to implement a universal emptying service that scheduled emptying of every septic tank on a three-yearly cycle. Each city government funded the service through tax revenues and then engaged the private sector to deliver it. Well-managed performance incentives kept the private operators motivated to provide high-quality services for households. The project, however, also worked to understand the commercial environment, supporting city governments to channel funds for the scheme through a dedicated escrow account to minimise payment delays to  private sector operators and manage their risk. It was a great example of viewing FSM through a rights-based ‘citizen’ lens and aggregating demand at the city level, with government being the ‘consumer’ of private sector services.

There was also a women’s empowerment component to the Maharashtra example, perhaps unsurprising given donor funding was provided from DFID and the Gates Foundation. The prominence of women amongst presenters and moderators and the application of a gender lens to FSM was a highlight of the conference. This was the 10 year anniversary of the first International FSM Conference and provided an opportunity to celebrate 10 Years of FSM Heroes — Past, Present and Future. The opening plenary celebrated the ‘past,’ with presentations and reflections from three articulate, knowledgeable and inspiring FSM advocates. They were great presenters, but all three were men so the session definitely demonstrated the past and was a stark contrast to the prominence of women in the rest of the conference. The Day 2 plenary was a great illustration, featuring two powerful, dynamic women talking about how we might shift the development paradigms that underpin our approach to FSM. That session is well-worth listening to, even if you’re not overly interested in FSM. I came away with the words of Euphresia Luseka, a WASH consultant from Kenya, ringing in my ears. She said that WASH failures reflect the lack of women in leadership at the top of organisations, and that resolving these failures means ensuring more women have power in decision-making processes. She urged women delegates not to wait for this to happen, noting that power needs to be taken, and exhorted women in sanitation to be loud and to take up more space. 

I’m looking forward to working more and more often with loud, powerful women who are taking up space in the sanitation sector. I trust they will lead us to think through the citizen-consumer paradigms and chart a holistic response. It’s an advantage that in Water for Women, we already have so many such women leading the way.


Photo: SNV Bhutan


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