Breaking the Poo Taboo

Originally published in Embassy News.

"Toilet humor" is not for everyone. Understandable.

Nevertheless, my calling demands I concur with the seminal comedian of our generation, Louis CK, who said: "You don't have to be smart to laugh at a fart joke but you do have to be stupid not to." With all due respect to those who disagree -- bullseye Louis.

Which brings me to the point of this article: toilets and poop are funny, while open defecation and diarrheal diseases are not. These conditions are daily realities for 2.5 billion people in the underdeveloped world, which, besides creating medieval levels of hardship, are responsible for health, gender and economic inequalities most of us can't fathom. That's why it's time to "break the taboo around poo" and embrace the movement (no pun intended, people!) dedicated to achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by 2030.

Global Citizen has been active since 2012, and has already managed to get over 400,000 citizens worldwide engaged in its campaigns. I first joined this cause when I performed at a World Toilet Day event in Ottawa in fall 2014, at which Global Citizen launched its Canadian initiative around WASH.

Having toured Canada from coast to coast over the past 15 years and experienced my fair share of roadside "emergencies," my set in Ottawa that night had plenty of personal anecdotes to call on. You haven't lived until you're stuck on a lonesome stretch of asphalt driving to a gig through a Rocky Mountain blizzard a Yeti wouldn't wander in desperate need of a "Number 2."

Thankfully, I didn't have to walk very far from the car to find a patch of boreal forest where I could answer nature's call -- if a chilly one.

It's a different story entirely when you're forced to squat on a downtown street corner during rush hour in Kinshasa. Not a lot of cover.

Aside from the obvious insult to human dignity, poor sanitation literally costs the entire world US$260 billion a year. These economic losses are reason enough for prioritizing WASH.

Truth is, though, they only scratch the surface.

Open defecation causes significant harm to the environment and consequently, human health. Ninety percent of sewage in the developing world is dumped, untreated, into lakes, rivers and oceans.

It's also a major contributing factor in many deadly diseases -- including typhoid, polio and diarrhea -- claiming the lives of 2,000 children under five every day.

The hidden horror of poor sanitation is its effect on women. Due to the stigma surrounding this natural bodily function, lack of toilets and sanitation perpetuates a global gender disparity, forcing women to spend 97 billion hours a year seeking a safe and private place "to go."

During that search, they face a one-in-three chance of being shamed, harassed and attacked, thus reinforcing deep inequalities, which effect their economic, social and emotional wellbeing. The loss in human potential is staggering.

Universal water, sanitation and hygiene will change the world.

Admittedly, comedians are known to exaggerate on occasion, if only for audience impact. But the above statement is fact. When the goals of WASH are achieved, the world will reap beaucoup boons, with serious returns on everything from work productivity and health, to the empowerment of women and children.

As Canadians, it's imperative we create a continuing dialogue around the taboo about poo by supporting those organizations fighting the right fight.

By calling on Canada to create a focus on these issues, it can more effectively continue saving the lives of women and children around the world. This would not only increase the impact and sustainability of Canada's international development, but set an incredible example to other governments, charities and non-governmental organizations on the urgency of WASH and the need for it to be seen as a critical component in strengthening health systems worldwide.

With 2015 as an election year, it's important we pressure all political parties to prioritize humanitarianism and understand the influence WASH can have in lifting people from the dungeon of extreme poverty to a world of light.

By learning more, becoming a global citizen and taking action, you can join me in the movement to eradicate poor WASH practices completely.

As a little kid I was spooked using an outhouse at camp. You sat atop an open hole way too big for your bum and "did your business," all the while praying away your primal fear of slipping through.

I came home to a flush toilet though. Two and a half billion people today never do, so let's make sure they someday will. Let's break the taboo around poo.

Co-authored by Dominic Mishio, Canada Country Director of Global Poverty Project.

Ron James has written and starred in 6 network comedy specials, 5 seasons of The Ron James Show and 2 seasons of Blackfly.