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Global Health Thought Leader Uncategorized

Looking for Sanitation Innovations


Michael Nyenhuis is President and CEO of MAP International

Where poverty exists, so do high rates of preventable disease. And where such disease exists, poor sanitation is often a root cause. While public health people know this well, we have not yet solved the problem.

This link between sanitation and disease was the premise of a global health-focused competition that took place at Emory University March 22-23. The 2013 International Emory Global Health Case Competition brought together more than 150 students from 10 countries and 24 different universities to generate innovative ideas to tackle the problem of inadequate sanitation.

The competition, now in its fifth year, was sponsored by the Emory Global Health Institute and used a case methodology. In other words, the students were presented a specific scenario in which to consider the problem. The scenario involved recommending to China a foreign aid program that would improve sanitation in targeted countries and generate spin-off economic benefits for China.

Here, in brief summary, is the idea the winners came up with:

  • Modeled on the American Peace Corps, China should develop a program to place volunteers for one year of service in rural China and then two years in a low-income country.
  • The volunteers would work on various sanitation interventions, testing both feasibility and cultural appropriateness.
  • The government would use an innovative scoring system to select and support successful interventions – and then  would select the countries where they would be implemented, with an eye on both improved sanitation and economic benefit.

The winning team this year came from Johns Hopkins University. Illustrating an important part of the competition – multidisciplinary approaches – the Hopkins team members came from four different schools – Engineering, Public Health, Nursing and Arts & Sciences.

Student Nidhi Khurana of the winning team had this to say about the competition: “The case … needed solutions on multiple levels and made us think hard to devise a workable plan.”

I like many things about the competition and the specific case they considered. Key, I think, was linking sanitation improvements to certain economic benefits for China. Sustainable development projects must tap into the self-interest of the communities that benefit – and the benefactors who often make them possible. We may wish it were not so, but without some level of self-interest, efforts toward improvement too often run out of steam.

The fact that we have not created a strong enough link between improved sanitation and economic benefit is one key reason 2.6 billion people around the globe lack access to adequate sanitation.

By the way, Yale University won second place in the Emory competition. The University of Miami placed third. Georgia Institute of Technology won an Honorable Mention Award and the Participants’ Choice Award. The University of Alabama at Birmingham won the competition’s Innovation Award.

The Global Health Case Competition began in 2009 with about 40 Emory students and has grown from there. It appropriately sprung from the fertile ground of Atlanta’s global health infrastructure, which includes our local academic institutions and the smart and passionate students they attract.

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