WasteAid Associate, Oliver Priestley-Leach tackles how to engage the international aid sector in the power of waste management

At almost $180 billion/yr, the international development “industry” is one of the biggest in the world. Global arms trade is estimated to be only £100 billion. Despite the size of aid budgets only £335 million was committed to waste management in 2012, and of this a large percentage was spent on large scale infrastructure projects in a limited number of countries. Why is this?

We hear about how poor waste management contributes or exacerbates poor health, degrades the environment and leads to local pollution and flooding, yet it appears from the above statistic not to be a ‘sexy’ area to support. Looking at the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated targets, there are at least two specifically on Solid Waste Management (SWM): 12.4: “… achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle … and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment” and 12.5: “… sustainably reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse”. These are two of 169; never the less one would expect funding to increase or be more than it currently is. What is holding the donors back?


Two main reasons spring to mind.

A young boy sits by an open sewer in a slum

A young boy sits over an open sewer in the Kibera slum, Nairobi. Image: By Trocaire from Ireland (Kibera17) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Links between poor waste management practices and ill health are hard to determine with confidence: increased respiratory disease from proximity to burning dumps is straight forward but other links to illness such as diarrhoeal diseases much harder. Is the higher incidence found in areas where there is no regular collection of waste a result of the accumulation of waste or is it that the marginalised and most vulnerable and most susceptible to those diseases are forced to live in those areas? Links between poor water and ill health are much more easy to prove: you drink bad water you get sick. Stop open defecation or provide a clean water supply and the results are quickly seen; waste management improvements may not have the same rapid impact.

Secondly the waste industry and it experts are predominantly just that: ‘waste experts’. We have great ideas about finding technical and organisational solutions to improve solid waste management. There is nothing wrong with that, but as we’ve seen from the statistics, waste is on the margins, donors do not come across many such projects and find it hard to see the direct benefits of SWM interventions when compared with the myriad other interventions and proposals passing over their desks.

Trash infested river in the Philippines

Trash infested river in the Philippines

As waste managers we need to start thinking outside the box and our comfort zone by changing our focus and promoting all the additional benefits SWM projects can bring to communities in preference to the improvements in SWM. Looking through the SDG targets I can quickly pull out 35 additional ones that SWM projects could contribute to, ranging from social inclusion, gender, economic development, empowerment to trade. It may well be that we should be focussing on and promoting these outcomes rather than the simple health and environmental outcomes that we tend to focus on as waste managers. The objective of the project is then providing training outcomes, creating jobs, including the marginalised or developing small businesses and are simply using SWM as the delivery vehicle. This may attract more support and still allow us to achieve our aims of better SWM and improved health and environment.

There are plenty of great examples – not least those being supported through WasteAid such as the employment and community income created through their partnerships in The Gambia and Kenya.

Some will say not making waste the key issue is a defeatist approach and we should be banging the table harder about waste to raise it up the agenda. True. However, we could also try this alternative approach of not being too precious about the focus on waste in order to potentially secure more support and make improvements to people’s lives more rapidly than could be achieved if stubbornly only talking about the importance of SWM. Once a critical mass of excellent examples has been achieved, then we can move on to promoting the direct benefits of SWM to the aid industry.

Just as we have turned waste management on its head to resource recovery, perhaps in the aid world we should turn SWM on its head and call it community mobilisation instead?


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