Broken Toilets

Emily Madsen and Samyuktha Varma have created an international magazine intended to change reporting on development work.

Reporting on development projects can be a divisive and sensitive issue. On the one hand, positive stories help development agencies justify the money they use and spend. On the other, critical reflection on concepts, projects and structures is also the only way to guarantee success over the long run. Digital Development Debates is one initiative that serves as a forum for such reflection. In a similar vein, two independent aid workers, Emily Madsen and Samyuktha Varma, are seeking to change the way development cooperation is portrayed in the media. They created “Broken Toilets”, an inspiring online magazine with a slightly odd name. We had a chance to ask what inspired the magazine and how it got its name.

DDD: Broken Toilets is not a name that would immediately come to mind for a development magazine. What is the idea behind it?

In much of the developing world, where sanitation solutions remain inadequate or even non-existent, broken toilets are a common sight. They can be found within or beside homes, in community toilet blocks next to slums, or just carelessly tossed out onto the street. Many of these toilets are well-intentioned gifts from development and aid NGOs, foundations, and multinational institutions. We decided on the name Broken Toilets as a metaphor for the business of global development and aid where a community's needs are defined by someone outside of the community – often by the entity funding the solution. As a result, the product, program, etc. isn’t effective or sustainable. Money and efforts are wasted, yet reports by the funders are usually quite glowing. This story repeats itself in many forms - there are menstrual hygiene programs that end as soon as the NGOs run out of supplies and leave town, water pumps that are installed without training local mechanics, malaria prevention programs that hand out nets that fall apart, schools that are given a generous donation of computers but only have electricity for an hour a day. The list goes on and on.
Given that most people working in development know this to be true, and give the little, sad chuckle we get at the name, we thought it provided a good, frank opening to discuss what is actually working and not working to stop all these toilets, literal and metaphorical, from breaking.

Why is it important to make development more comprehensible to the general public?

The general public has a greater ability than ever before to be actively engaged with global development - mostly because of social media and new ways to donate and participate. Amidst all the information they're receiving, we think it’s important that they get better reporting about what’s actually happening on the ground, what it takes to bring about positive change, and know where their money is going when they donate or support causes they care about.

You touched on a variety of issues connected to development. What is unique about broken toilets?

We feel a need to respond to the huge gap between the frank, critical, inspiring conversations we have with colleagues versus how this work is currently being portrayed - in reports and mainstream media. To put it very simply, we wanted to find a way to talk more openly about how development work actually gets done, and to find a way to increase the number of people with whom we have this conversation. Speaking as practitioners, we think this is important, and is a critically missing link that can only make the collective efforts we’ve been engaged in more meaningful.

Making the topics accessible to the general public, as well as appealing to our colleagues in the sector, included making thematic-based issues. New issues come out about every 6 weeks along a central theme and a blog runs simultaneously. Our hope is that this format allows the content to be easily consumed and that readers come away with an understanding of the topic or a connection to their work that’s happening in different places.

Its also quite important to us that our stories are not limited to what’s happening just in developing countries, but developing communities all over the world. The problems and challenges that perpetuate inequality are more similar than they are different and we want to make sure we can learn from each other. In a Broken Toilets issue, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a story out of Bangalore next to one from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Though you live continents apart in two different time zones, digital technology connects you. Your aim is to get global citizens involved in a discussion about their future. What are the challenges of a global conversation on development?

We couldn’t have made Broken Toilets without FaceTime, Skype or Whatsapp! We are constantly in communication via one of these outlets or texting through another.

A major challenge for global conversations on development is just understanding the cultural context in which the issues exist. You see this across socio-political spheres and when decisions are made for a community by funders who don’t understand that community’s needs or wants. This challenge is a main reason why the “...and Culture” is in our tagline. We want to make sure our stories highlight the local practices, solutions, histories, and cultural complexities that bring capacities and barriers to progress.

You work independently. How are you funding the project?

We published the first 3 issues of Broken Toilets through a private donation and we’re preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to keep it going throughout the year. Look out for it!

Photo: “Broken Symmetry” by Daniel Parks
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)