New York

29 May 2014

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at Social Innovation Summit

I’m here to talk about something that the world chooses not to talk about.

I’m here to talk about a situation that exists now, shocking in its scale and consequences, and which seriously affects the lives of people every day.

Fifteen percent of the global population is forced to do this every day – a staggering total of 1 billion members of our human family.

A necessity that has a terrible impact on the health of those people.  Every day, it leads to the death of thousands of children, one every two and a half minutes.

This problem is not an addiction, not a disease, not a dictator or a regime.

It is not a war, a weapon or an act of terrorism.

I am talking about the practice of Open Defecation and the lack of sanitation.

For many of you that silence was uncomfortable, or at least confusing.  I would ask you to question yourselves: why – why was this silence uncomfortable?

Was it the sadness or anger at the completely preventable deaths of so many?

Was it simply considering the horror of those facts?

Was it a social awkwardness, or an affront to dignity? Was it embarrassment, shock or disgust?

It is high time to talk openly about Open Defecation and the lack of sanitation, and it is time now to do something about it. 

Tackling the challenge of sanitation is fundamental to bringing change in so many areas, to so many people.  


The sanitation issues have concerned me ever since my first days working for the United Nations.  When I served as the first UN Emergency Relief Coordinator I saw with my own eyes the impact of lack of clean water and sanitation in the field.  I saw children die, silently and unnecessarily, from diarrhoea and other diseases that could have been prevented with access to clean water and sanitation.

That is why I launched in March last year, on behalf of the Secretary-General a Call to Action on Sanitation.  The issues I am talking about today, on the need to end Open Defecation, is part of this effort to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by the end of 2015.  We have one year and seven months to go, and the sanitation targets are the ones most lagging behind.  We must take action now.

Here are some positive facts to consider.

For every single dollar invested in sanitation we see a   $5 return to the economy of that country.  That translates from a $260 billion annual loss into a $60 billion gain for the world’s poorest nations.

If we could end Open Defecation in just ten countries we would see the numbers affected drop by 80 percent.

If we end Open Defecation and invest in sanitation, we would see a direct reduction of more than a third of all deaths of children under five caused by diarrhoea.  And the consequences of improved sanitation could potentially reach even farther.

It is time to start conversations, to break taboos, and to marvel at the possibilities.  And it’s time to explore the social innovations that might accelerate progress on sanitation that is so badly needed.

That is why I am talking about this issue here at the Social Innovation Summit.  In this room, we have an amazing braintrust of innovators, leaders, activists and drivers of progress. 

You represent the worlds of business, government, and non-profit sectors.  You are skilled at problem-solving – and you can network to expand your power even more.  I am confident that if you join forces, we can make an enormous difference in the daily lives of one billion people in our world.

But most importantly, we need sustainable solutions to tackle the sanitation challenges.  Gone are the days when you could use toilets that flush away litres of clean water.  In a world of rapid urbanization, climate change and environmental degradation, we need solutions that will last, and solutions that are community based. 

Remember, nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. 

In closing, I ask you to remember our moment of silence, but not remember an awkward pause or sense of embarrassment – I ask you to ponder on the simple fact that if we see an end to Open Defecation and better access to sanitation we might see the end of silent death for many millions of people and instead, the beginning of a Life of Dignity for All.

And so, I ask that today is the last time any of us remain silent on toilets, sanitation and open defecation.

Thank you.