Liberia’s First District Reaches “Open Defecation Free” Status with Support from Global Communities

Liberia’s First District Reaches “Open Defecation Free” Status with Support from Global Communities

By Stephen Farshing, Global Communities

VAHUN TOWN, LOFA COUNTY, LIBERIA – Vahun Town, Liberia, a remote district with 34 communities in the northwest bordering Sierra Leone, recently became the first district to be declared entirely open defecation-free (ODF) by the government of Liberia.

“Since the outbreak of Ebola, this is the first celebration that we as a town have had,” said the Mayor of Vahun Town as he addressed attendees of the ODF celebration.   “I am proud to be here for this momentous occasion and to continue supporting you all as you progress.”

Global Communities began implementing Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) as part of its Ebola response programming in April, 2015 and has continued with support from the USAID-funded Partnership for Advancing Community-Based Services (PACS) Program. CLTS is an innovative approach that encourages communities to discuss vital health issues, take responsibility for their own sanitation and build their own latrines through a zero-subsidy approach to eliminate open defecation.

Please see a slideshow of the celebration below:

Vahun Town First Liberia District to Reach “Open Defecation Free” Status

Global Communities and CLTS in Liberia

When Global Communities (then CHF International) first came to Lofa County, little was known about CLTS there, and support for sanitation and hygiene activities from the local authorities was scarce. “Many NGOs were providing latrine subsidies at the time and it was not working; it was difficult for CLTS to take off in Lofa,” said a representative from the County Steering Committee (CSC), the government body responsible for overseeing CLTS at the county level. “Through persistent zero subsidy engagement, Global Communities was able to empower communities to truly make this activity their own and reach their goal of becoming ODF,” he continued. He also noted the significant reduction in diarrheal cases, especially in children, in the district over the past six months, which research confirms is in part attributable to eliminating open defecation. Since April, the number of communities supported to become ODF by Global Communities has exponentially increased from just more than 300 after the five-year USAID IWASH program, to more than 700 and is expected to reach 1,000 in the next two months.

CLTS relies heavily on the influence of Natural Leaders (NLs), community members who take responsibility for leading their communities to ODF status. In Bong, Nimba and Lofa counties, Global Communities has supported NLs to organize into networks at the district level. Once Natural Leader Networks are established, they are then trained and encouraged to trigger their neighboring communities in CLTS, creating a program sustainability that is extremely cost-effective and allows community members to truly guide the process. Global Communities recently worked alongside the Ministry of Health to revise the Guidelines for CLTS Implementation in Liberia, – the official WASH policy for the Government of Liberia – to make Natural Leader Networks a necessary part for all organizations implementing CLTS in the country.

Congratulating Vahun’s Natural Leaders

Leading the event, Global Communities Senior Program Manager Liz Geddeh thanked the citizens of Vahun and stressed that their experience should serve as an example for other districts to learn from. She then recognized the members of Vahun District’s Natural Leader Network as the pivotal group influencing sanitation behavior change in communities. “These Natural Leaders are our soldiers for sanitation!” Geddeh said. “They are the ones who have brought their communities to this stage and they are not stopping there.”

Global Communities began working in Vahun by initially triggering roughly half of the communities and after these became ODF, Natural Leaders from these communities triggered and brought the remaining communities to ODF status themselves. “After their communities succeed, they make sure the CLTS fire spreads to other places; some of our Natural Leaders have even spread the fire to our neighbor [Sierra Leone],” Geddeh continued in reference to one Natural Leader who crossed the border to trigger three communities that were also declared ODF during the celebration. “These are the people that keep the fire burning. Vahun District: don’t let the fire go out! Make it move!” Geddeh concluded.

According to former Country Director and now Senior WASH Technical Advisor Piet DeVries: “I had the great pleasure of helping start the Natural Leader Network in 2013 with our team and I have to say I am incredibly proud of the work that all of you have done. I also met with the father of CLTS, Kamal Karr, and he has been so impressed that he wants to come back to Liberia after six years to see what is being done here. Congratulations to you all for the spectacular work you are doing that is being recognized internationally.”

A spokesperson for the Natural Leader Network responded to Geddeh and thanked Global Communities for its work in Vahun and all of Lofa County. “You have empowered us to learn,” he said. “Some of us can now build and repair hand pumps; most importantly we can mobilize our communities to think about hygiene differently and become ODF. We are committed to maintaining this and we know that we ourselves have to power to keep spreading this knowledge and inspiring action.”

Increased Support for CLTS from Government of Liberia  

In addition to implementing partners and NGOs, several government officials attended the celebration including Paramount Chiefs and District Commissioners and Superintendents from Lofa and Nimba Counties. Showing their unprecedented support for CLTS, five national-level officials from the two ministries responsible for WASH (Ministry of Health and Ministry of Public Works attended the celebration.

Director of Environmental and Occupational Health, Deawohn Yeabah, accompanied by his Deputy Director Amos Gborie, addressed the attendees: “We bring you greetings from the Ministry of Health. What is happening in Vahun is historical. You have taken a big step. We want you to be a goodwill ambassador and lead by example.” Director Yeabah noted that the challenge still remains for Vahun to stay ODF. “When you build a house, you feel proud and comfortable but you have to maintain that house,” he concluded.

The Ministry of Public Works, historically having less involvement in CLTS implementation, made an important statement by sending two high-level officials to attend the celebration and publically committing their continued support and engagement. Deputy Minister for Rural Development and Community Services, Jackson Paye and Assistant Minister for Community Services, George Yarngo had the honor of officially declaring Vahun District ODF. “It is my pleasure on behalf of the two line ministries that support CLTS to present this award to you to commend your tireless efforts to improve the health and cleanliness of your communities. Honorable Commissioner and people of Vahun District, we congratulate you and we thank you” said Assistant Minister Yarngo.

Deputy Minister Paye noted the importance of using the momentum and increased community mobilization gained through CLTS to accomplish additional goals such as sending every child to school. “CLTS is an entry point, but it is not the end,” Deputy Minister Paye said. “Your work shows donors that no one is too poor to do something for themselves. Once our politicians back us, we are going to succeed and continue to develop beyond what we have already achieved.” Using CLTS as a gateway to development, Global Communities is currently exploring other ways of continually engaging ODF communities through livelihood opportunities to those that maintain their status for a significant period of time. Said Acting Country Director Josh Balser:  “CLTS is very much the first step to development for many communities. Once they’ve demonstrated their willingness to work and achieve a common goal, it’s about capturing that dedication and using it to promote further development.”

Leahown Tokpah, Coordinator for the National Technical Coordinating Unit (NTCU) – the body responsible for overseeing CLTS at the national level – noted the rapid speed at which CLTS has spread from three counties in 2009 to eight counties today. He closed his speech with a powerful announcement that the Ministry of Health and NTCU have set a goal for all of Liberia to be ODF by 2030.

District-level Competition

When asked what factors are currently making CLTS such a fast-working success, Balser commented: “The Natural Leader Networks have always been a huge driving force. They sustain the process and make it spread but now we are starting to see sort of a friendly competition between districts. District Commissioners, Superintendents and Paramount Chiefs want to see their districts reach this level, and they are beginning to make pledges and say they want to do better than another district. It’s all in good fun and it does a lot to motivate everyone.”

Paramount Chief Kamara from neighboring Quadru Gboni District noted playfully in his speech to the celebration: “Vahun promised they would win! They beat my district this time and we are so proud of them but we are more motivated than ever to replicate what they have done.”

The District Superintendent from Gbeley-Geh District in Nimba County also made the 10-hour journey to celebrate with Vahun and further exemplified this competitive sentiment. “To the people of Vahun, we will soon be inviting you to Nimba!” he noted. Out of 103 communities in Gbeley-Geh, only 52 have yet to reach ODF status and many of those have already been triggered and are awaiting verification. “Mark my words; Gbeley-Geh will be the next fully ODF district.” 

Furthermore, the District Commissioner of Vahun publically pledged if that Vahun maintains its ODF status, he will  continue encouraging Natural Leaders to spread their support to Sierra Leone, using what Assistant Minister Yarngo coined as “CLTS without borders.” “This is the story of Vahun and we are here to make it last,” he said.

Moving Forward and up the Development Path

Now that Liberia has seen an entire district accomplish what was thought to be impossible 10 years ago in a post-conflict environment, the question remains: What is next? Reaching the goal of an entirely ODF country in 15 years will be no easy task but dedication of local leaders, Natural Leaders and extremely talented field staff have shown that it is indeed possible.

When asked how to keep the “fire moving,” as Geddeh described, Balser stated: “We need to continue to motivate and empower community leaders to sustain their gains made in sanitation and focus them on a path of continued improvement. This isn’t just about health. It’s about the priorities that these leaders set for their own people. If you can trigger a community of people to build their own latrines and change their health practices, why can’t you do the same for sending kids to school or diversifying income generating activities? We have to stay in touch with what people want to do for themselves. This is why CLTS is so successful, and we have to be constantly applying what we’ve learned to every aspect of our programming.”