09/22/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Four R's: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic... and Restrooms

As children here in America head back to the school, they are diving into the 3Rs -- Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. It's a good thing since our students need to do better at the basics as standardized tests remind us. But interestingly, many children in the world are struggling with a different R.


This might sound glib, but it's an enormous problem that most of us never think about and fails to capture the public imagination. However, a child in the developing world never gets a chance to think about that new school uniform or a nifty backpack if the school lacks a simple toilet, let alone a sink or wash basin. For millions of pre and school-age girls and boys in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the absence of this basic facility is a very real threat to their health, education, and future.

From a health perspective, improper sanitation -- not having a toilet -- causes illness and suffering on an almost unimaginable scale. According to UNICEF, 400 million school-aged children are infected annually by intestinal worms that sap their learning abilities. Beyond the discomfort, a staggering number of children die from this situation. Diarrhea alone will kill 1.4 million children this year, all before their fifth birthday. It might be hard to grasp the scope of this tragedy, but consider this: the world loses 70,000 classrooms of kindergarteners every year due to this entirely preventable condition.

It's also an issue that hits young girls particularly hard. CARE estimates that some 150 million children do not complete primary school. How can we achieve gender equality at a global level and a common dignity for all when girls constitute more than two-thirds of that number? Its common to meet middle-aged women in developing world who left school when they reached puberty due to the practical and personal considerations of menstruation. For what its worth, many of these women also started collecting water around the same age.

During a week when the world is talking about the MDGs, this solution can be sketched out with a fair amount of clarity. In contrast, an issue like universal literacy is an incredibly complex challenge. It seems very much affected by a stew of factors including widespread poverty, cultural norms, parental literacy, educational materials, local logistics, public finances and the list goes on. Despite these daunting concerns, innovative social entrepreneurs are tearing down the barriers to progress and bringing education to those in the far corners of the world once consigned to ignorance and illiteracy.

There are numerous examples in this area. Room to Read has achieved remarkable results in its quest to educate impoverished communities, building libraries at the amazing rate of one every four hours while spawning local language children's publishing around the world. New initiatives like the micro-student loan program just launched by Kiva might help a new generation to enroll or stay in school.

These ventures have demonstrated scalable models to attack a highly complicated and layered problem. If we can apply entrepreneurship and innovation to this issue, we should be able to do the same for sanitation. There might even be smart models to consider in the realm of cross-sector partnerships.

For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) at CGI this week. It's an ambitious program intended to ignite a robust worldwide market for clean and efficient household cook stoves, serving 100 million households by 2020 and delivering commercial and environmental sustainability. By bringing together an unlikely set of players including Morgan Stanley, Shell, the UN Foundation as well as a number of foreign aid agencies and UN bureaus, the GACC hopes to develop financing mechanisms and distribution models to deliver these products to those who need them.

So why not a Global Alliance for Latrines in Schools? Its not hard to imagine. The best and brightest minds from design and entrepreneurship could raise seed capital from foundations and social angels to pilot new ideas on how to build latrines and systems supported by operating models to ensure their maintenance and usage. Public and private actors could be engaged to provide funding to scale projects that demonstrate proof of concept. Fascinating alliances could emerge along the way between groups advocating for universal education, gender equity, and global health, all of whom see how sanitation access can advance their own agendas.

Sanitation is a basic need that could enable a new destiny for billions of people. It can accelerate progress in numerous other areas of human development. Far too few philanthropic dollars and entrepreneurial energies are focused on it. It is time to apply the same degree of innovation and ingenuity to this problem that has been brought to bear in other fields.

Lets not wait another generation. We need to summon the talent and ignite the will now. When we do so, we should be able to cross the fourth R off our back-to-school shopping list and better the lives of billions in need.