The last mile: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’

11 June 2018

During the East and Southern Africa Regional Rural Sanitation Workshop organised by the CLTS Knowledge Hub in Arusha (hosted by SNV Tanzania) we heard how successful achievement of SDG 6.2 requires efforts to reach the ‘last mile’ with adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene.

The ‘last mile’ is a topical way to describe the last, difficult mile in the race towards open defecation free (ODF) communities, nations and regions by 2030. However, the phrase more usually refers to the final portion of a network (telecommunication, internet), that physically reaches the user’s home or property. There is, therefore, an implicit assumption that the ‘last mile’ will be sedentary.

Yet, the workshop participants identified a range of ‘last mile’ groups in East and Southern Africa such as fishers, miners, seasonal workers, or pastoralists. These communities spend a significant proportion of time away from home making it difficult to serve these groups locationally but also socially since they are often stigmatised as criminal, chaotic and disorganised groups of people. For instance, artisanal miners in Tanzania are widely considered as invaders (wavamizi in Swahili).

Taking care of business when there is nowhere to go

Target SDG 6.2 assumes that most people depend on their homes for their toilet needs. Away from home, we rely on some variant of public provision. Otherwise open defecation or open urination is the only alternative. Initiatives like WASH in the Workplace aim to ensure that workers have access to and can use safe improved sanitation and adequate hygiene. However there has been less attention to date for WASH for rural livelihoods where people are highly mobile and self-employed or work in small enterprises. In particular, workshop participants referred to:

  • Fishers: ‘Sanitation behavior change is difficult to ignite in riverbank and waterfront communities and special strategies are needed’ (WSP, 2011). There may be an acceptance of open defecation near a water body or a beach. While funds can be raised through fishing to invest in household latrines, away from home fisher people may have no choice but to defecate in water along the coast or lake shores. Seasonal or circular migration is a feature of most small-scale or artisanal fishers and water front communities can experience influxes of migrant fishers, which also affects achievement of ODF. UNICEF is developing a ‘beach and island strategy‘ for fishing communities along the coast of Lake Victoria.
  • Miners: In places like Masieda, Tanzania, there are a number of small scale gold mining activities. One study reported 3,000 miners in mining camps defecating in open spaces and near the river, which contaminated the only water source in the area.
  • Pastoralists: Many people in the region shift from one place to another in search for food or pasture and water for their animals. For instance, in Tanzania WaterAid and partners have worked with the Hadzabe tribe (hunters and honey gatherers), and the Barbaig tribe (pastoralists). In Maasai communities, workshop participants indicated that men can’t be seen to go into a toilet and many think that the male warriors – the Moran – never defecate. If women have been triggered in pastoralist communities they may have to wait for a season for the men to come back to make a decision on whether to build a toilet. UNICEF is developing a pastoralist-specific strategy in Ethiopia.
  • Toilets inscribe and reinforce gender difference1 …Mobile occupations are traditionally thought of as masculine industries. However, African women play an underreported role. For instance, in artisanal and small scale mining while men tend to dig and transport the ore, women pull up the ore from the pit and clean it. Similarly, small-scale fishing is highly gender-segregated division of labour (men fishing / women processing). In many cases the lack of sanitation options away from home helps produce exclusively male occupational niches.

Our own last mile – sanitation away from home

Although most people in the UK have toilets in their homes, the lack of public toilets presents personal hardship for a range of people such as those with disabilities, older people and women but also the street based work force (such as market or food vendors) and taxi drivers (some of whom use makeshift urinals such as peeing into empty plastic containers). In the UK, Ladies Sanitary Association once successfully lobbied for the provision of permanent public toilets for women in Victorian London. Now councils are closing public toilets and some railway or bus stations don’t have toilet facilities. Local authority sites for Gypsies, Travelers and travelling showpeople can lack basic sanitation. The Changing Places consortium estimates 200,000 people with severe disabilities in the UK cannot use standard accessible toilets. Stonewall highlights the level of vitriol directed at transgender and non-binary people including those using public toilets. Lack of access affects homeless people most directly being outside the daily routine of home and work: many homeless individuals must relieve themselves in the open, wear soiled clothes for days on end, and involuntarily forgo basic hygiene. Some people use cafe toilets even when they are not customers – Starbucks company policy has recently been in the news, regarding their discretion over who can use the toilet. ‘Negotiating with a shopkeeper or restaurant owner over restroom access becomes an argument not just about physical relief but also for inclusion in the class of folks who uphold symbolic cleanliness ‘¦ Being told there’s no bathroom for you is not so much about the bathroom as it is about not being recognized as ‘one of us’ who deserves access.


The toilet allows us to ask what precisely it might mean to provide equality. ‘Last mile’ groups will not be the same in all settings. We cannot assume that the ‘last mile’ groups will be sedentary, nor that uni-directional approaches will be appropriate. Similarly, such people may not be served once and for all. Specific interventions may be non-networked and require a range of strategies:

  • improvements to identifying mobile and hard to reach groups
  • evidence on the scale of the problem and the challenges faced
  • testing and sharing of effective approaches to reach these groups
  • advocacy for support to reach the last mile by governments and development partners
  • disaggregated monitoring systems to track progress and sustainability in the last mile.

(The quote in the title is by Lewis Carroll)

Sue Cavill is an independent WASH consultant