THE BLOG
09/27/2013 11:27 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

The Best Investment You Ever Sat On

A certain extremely successful businessman, someone I knew well, always said that of the 200 companies he owned in his long, long career, his favorite was a chain of steakhouses because they brought in money seven days a week. Global sanitation--increased access to safe, sustainable toilet systems--is a similar dynamo, returning financial and humanitarian rewards every minute of every day. If you want to lower infant mortality rates, raise education levels, increase public health, and boost economic productivity in the developing world, good sanitation is at the bottom of it all. To put a dollar figure on it, improved water and sanitation systems have demonstrated returns of at least $5 and as much as $46 for each dollar invested. The Water for the World Act currently before Congress puts the power of the U.S. government behind those efforts. It supports effective, localized sanitation improvement programs with transparent monitoring systems, all without adding a dime to the deficit. It deserves your attention, and your support.

Right now, at least 2.5 billion people live without improved sanitation, which means they're frequently exposed to feces. As a result, diarrhea and related illnesses kill more than two thousand children a day. Those who survive risk becoming stunted, both physically and cognitively. Older children, especially girls, tend to drop out when there's no access to safe sanitation at home or at school. The ill effects accumulate and spread throughout the society and the economy, robbing countries of as much as 6.4% of GDP. These losses frustrate foreign aid efforts and help destabilize entire regions, which the 2012 National Intelligence Estimate on Global Water Security documents.

As daunting as the problem is, we are making progress. In the last decade, over 240,000 people a day have gained access to improved sanitation facilities. Along the way, we've learned that when we put sanitation choices in people's hands, the resulting systems are more successful than those designed without consumer input. Along with the traditional players--charities, governments, grassroots organizations--for-profit enterprises play a growing role here. Successful sanitation improvements open up new markets, and there is money to be made.

Recently, the World Bank estimated that the untapped market for improved sanitation services in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Peru, and Tanzania alone may reach $260 billion. They've also identified ways governments, NGOs, and entrepreneurs can reach out to these potential consumers, whether through targeted design and marketing, accessible financial services such as microloans, or changes in local investment climates. This is the emerging sanitation development model: address the immediate problem but also encourage the innovation and sustainable growth that can ultimately solve the problem.

But the invisible hand can only do so much on its own, especially when the marketplace is more or less starting from scratch. That's where legislation such as the Water for the World Act comes in. Co-sponsored by Congressmen Ted Poe (R-TX) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), it's an excellent example of productive legislation rising above partisan rancor. This revenue-neutral bill takes existing USAID funding and directs it to the countries most in need of help, encouraging local governments and communities to increase their leadership over water and sanitation programs. It also requires increased transparency, monitoring, and evaluation, with reports going both to the federal government and from the feds to the American public. Not least, it addresses concerns identified in the Global Water Security estimate. And did I mention the bi-partisan support? Senator Bob Corker, the lead Republican sponsor of an earlier Senate version of the bill, says, "I'm a fiscal conservative and want to see each of our foreign aid dollars go as far as possible."

You can support passage of the bill by contacting your U.S. senators and representatives, and by participating in the upcoming Global Citizens Festival, organized by the Global Poverty Project. The festival's website provides information about issues related to global poverty, including sanitation, and offers ways to measure your impact. (Toilet Hackers, the organization I co-founded with Michael Lindenmayer, is helping gather signatures for End Water Poverty's online petition to the UN, and there's still time for you to sign.) Congressman Blumenauer will be at the Festival, reaching out directly to the 60,000 people at the concert as well as the 50 million watching worldwide. I hope you'll be in the audience. Once enough of us realize how effective global sanitation truly is, how powerfully it leverages every dollar invested to improve the lives of billions--that's when change starts to happen.

In his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama understandably focused on the looming question of military intervention in Syria. Yet, in that context, he also pointed out the pragmatic value of efforts such as the Water for the World Act: "If we don't want to choose between inaction and war, we must get better--all of us--at the policies that prevent the breakdown of basic order," including "development assistance that brings hope to the marginalized." Through sustainable sanitation development, that hope encompasses not just better hygiene and health, but stronger economies and environments.

The Water for the World Act, and sustainable sanitation programs generally, make very effective use of funds but that's the crudest way of evaluating their worth. As much as my father appreciated that steakhouse chain's cash flow, he was always aware that money was only one measure of success. He invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research and education because he wanted "to be in the development of people. That's where the meaning comes." I agree. In the most fundamental way, global sanitation development is the development of people, and no spreadsheet can truly capture the meaning of that.

John Kluge is the co-founder and Chief Disruption Officer of Toilet Hackers.