Looking Local: Addressing Hunger, Poverty and WASH

03/30/2015 08:56 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Why does hunger persist in a world of plenty? In a world that has made so much progress in achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), cutting extreme poverty in half by 2010, why has it not yet cut hunger in half? Most people are surprised that it has virtually nothing to do with food supply, and far more to do with sexism, open defecation and weak local government.

India has the world's largest share of hunger -- more hungry people than all of Africa combined. Experts estimate that half of that hunger is a result of water-borne disease caused by open defecation. With 17 percent of the world's population, India has 61 percent of the world's open defecation. And the greatest reason this practice persists is that women have been denied voice in decision-making.

Hunger is a violation of human rights, and human rights are built on the concept of human dignity. There is perhaps nothing more fundamental to our human dignity than water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). When that human right is secure, we might take it for granted. But for the millions of children whose nutrition is destroyed by water-borne diseases, and for the billion-plus women and girls who risk sexual assault daily simply for lack of access to a toilet, it is a critical political issue.

WASH politics are local. If the pipes are broken, you shouldn't have to travel to your national capital to get them fixed. You need someone within reach to hold to account. This is why I am such a passionate advocate for strong, participatory local democracy. When you visit communities where the water doesn't work, you can bet that underneath that problem is a lack of local democracy.

The good news is that the long-standing issues of sexual assault, nutrition and open defecation are finally getting public attention in the media. India has elected a prime minister famous for his pledge "toilets before temples." Yet fulfilling this pledge requires local action.

Fortunately, an earlier prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, championed a constitutional amendment reserving 1/3 of all seats in local government for women. In deeply patriarchal rural India, which suppressed women's voice for thousands of years, women are now discovering their voice and learning to flex their political muscles. My Hunger Project colleagues in India have worked with 100,000 of these elected women representatives to build their leadership skills and advocacy networks. Our work is based on an innovative, holistic approach, which empowers women and men living in rural villages to become the agents of their own development and make sustainable progress in overcoming hunger and poverty, including through WASH.

Twenty-four-year-old Nepura Mahji, a tribal woman from the impoverished state of Odisha, was a rare high school graduate from her village and one of the few whose home had a toilet. She was elected to be the village council president in 2012 and made it her mission to protect the women of her village: "I know that women without toilets at home are vulnerable while walking miles in the dark to find a private place to relieve themselves. I could well imagine their painful situation particularly during menstruation." She educated her community on diseases caused by open defecation and helped people understand how toilets will improve their lives. She ran into bureaucratic obstacles, however, and even had to file a Right-to-Information request to find out what funds were allocated for water and sanitation. After repeated efforts, she secured funds for 222 household toilets and has repaired broken water pumps.

Rekha Devi, from the even poorer state of Bihar, had been dependent on making hand-rolled cigarettes (Beedi) for a living before running for local election in 2011. She, too, took up the challenge of sanitation -- seeking to clean up the open sewage drains in the village. Her council president stonewalled her. She went to the local newspapers and made the filthy conditions a front-page issue. The council president caved, granting the $200 required to solve the problem. Rekha is now taking on securing a clean water supply for everyone in her community.

Women like Nepura and Rekha are making a difference in hunger and poverty in their communities by tackling the issue of WASH through the local government system. Their efforts are improving the nutrition of the children of their communities, allowing other women to study or engage in livelihood activities, and creating an environment where women's voices can be heard.

Twenty years ago, my colleagues in The Hunger Project-India studied whether water projects launched by NGOs or the state government were more effective. They frankly thought the evidence would favor NGOs. But they found that both failed equally -- the only determinant of success was the engagement of local government.

When I visited my Midwestern parents after my first visit to India, they asked what it was like. I was at a loss for words. I simply asked them to be grateful that they had a metropolitan sewer district -- people locally accountable for a thankless but essential responsibility.

More stories like those of Rekha and Napura can be found at

This blog post is part of the "WASH and the MDGs: The Ripple Effect" blog series, in partnership with WASH Advocates, addressing the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to global development. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. To learn more about WASH, visit the WASH Advocates website, and for more information about the Millennium Development Goals, click here.