Hygiene: The Cinderella of the SDG ball

You might be wondering why 90 international organizations have joined together to call for hygiene in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this week.

Hygiene -- specifically handwashing with soap -- is fundamental to reducing child mortality and fighting undernutrition, as well as advancing education, gender equity, dignity, and human rights all over the world. Every year, 1.7 million children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthday because of diarrhea and pneumonia. Handwashing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent these diseases, and yet it was neglected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and which meant it was not properly prioritized in international development.

The SDGs (the successors to the MDGs) are being negotiated now. The SDGs will be instrumental in how countries set priorities, plans and funding for national and international development for the next fifteen years. After many consultations, hygiene is part of a target that is likely to be adopted by UN member states later this year: by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all. With this target, it seems that the importance of hygiene in international development is at last being properly recognized, this Cinderella issue being invited to the SDG ball. So what is the problem?

The problem is indicators -- the method by which countries will track, report on and compare their progress towards achieving the SDG targets. Statisticians at the UN have recently proposed dropping hygiene from the list of SDG indicators that will be tracked globally, in a bid to reduce the number of things to measure. The problem is that without a global hygiene indicator, we cannot not know whether or not countries are on track to achieving the hygiene target. And if hygiene is not being explicitly tracked at a global level, the mandate to invest in its improvement will be diluted. Countries may choose to focus their investments on those targets for which they have greater global accountability, even though we know that hygiene is essential for the health, wellbeing and dignity of all people, underpins success in key development fields from communicable diseases to nutrition to education, and was identified as a priority through global consultation. If hygiene lacks a global indicator, it will be left behind like the Cinderella of international development targets, looking on as other issues like water and sanitation (which do have global-level indicators at the moment) go to the SDG ball.

Ninety international corporations, non-governmental organizations, multilateral organizations, and coalitions have signed a letter this week asking key United Nations decision makers to stop this from happening.

Hygiene is not a matter of 'nice to do'; losing hygiene from the global indicator list would represent a failure to fully capitalize upon this historic opportunity to bring better health, nutrition, education, equity, and economic opportunities to millions around the world. The letter that was sent this week helps emphasize the essential role of hygiene in seizing that opportunity. If you would like to add your individual voice, you can sign this petition. Hygiene needs some fairy godmothers to help make sure it gets into the SDG ball.