Now wash your hands

Every day, 5,000 children die because of poor sanitation. Villagers in Madagascar tell Barbara Gunne

"What did we tell you last time we were here?" shouts the man with the microphone.

"Wash Your Hands!" yell back 200 children aged around 5-11. They are seated on the grass verges of the crossroads at Amparatanana, a village on Madagascar's east coast, the audience for a travelling marionette show spreading the word about hygienic use of latrines, keeping water uncontaminated and, above all, hand-washing.

As Mr Clean upbraids Mr Dirty for his bad habits, the children scold along; as Mr Dirty goes home to his wife clutching his stomach with diarrhoea pains, they giggle uncontrollably.

The puppets are part of this region's response to the international rural water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project that got under way in Madagascar soon after the country suffered a severe cholera outbreak early in 2000. Water Aid, the key international NGO in this field in the country, is working here with local partners, the Frères Saint-Gabriel.

Yvon, one of the FSG hygiene educators, regularly updates the puppet-show scripts to keep the children hooked on the message. His aim, he told me, is to use storylines as close to the children's home lives as possible, so that hand-washing becomes second nature. This sounds easy until you consider that, in the middle of our own culture of abundant soap and hot water, medical staff still manage to spread MRSA because they fail to wash their hands between patients.

In fact, educators like Yvon have to work miracles. The wood and thatch huts of these east-coast villages are tightly packed in to small compounds without running water. Soap is a luxury and such latrines as exist are poorly designed, badly sited and almost always a health hazard.

Yet the children do absorb the hand-washing message and the impact of the singing, dancing, 12-foot-high marionettes has been rapid in the schools. Albertine-Rosalie Clode, a teacher for 37 years, whom we met fetching water at the new water kiosk, told us that her school of 1,686 pupils aged 6-17 was already seeing improvements.

"Awareness has changed in just one year [since WaterAid and FSG came to this village], particularly among the children. When the ice-cream seller comes by, they ask him, 'What water did you use to make it?' The puppets show families as they know them. In the past we could have 20 children off sick out of a class of 44-60, particularly in the rainy season," says Mme Clode, who lives alongside the families of her pupils, and whose many grandchildren are as vulnerable to the debilitating water-borne diseases of the area as the children of poorer neighbours.

The hand-washing message - enormously effective in its own right - also underscores the urgent need to speed up provision of clean water and appropriate sanitation. The poorest villagers here still depend on river collection for some water and still manage without toilets. The few existing wells, some provided only in the past few years, are uncovered and vulnerable to impurities from the buckets of different users. And, as the area has an unusually high water table, there is considerable risk of groundwater contamination from badly designed and sited latrines.

The proportion of people with safe water and adequate sanitation in the villages of the Analanjirofo district (to which New Statesman subscri bers' contributions are directed) is estimated to be as low as 9 per cent, inflicting a heavy penalty on the local economy in hours lost to education and productive work.

Persuading officialdom of the economic good sense of developing a national sanitation strategy has been an important part of WaterAid's work in Madagascar. In 2003, its research showed that the country was losing five million working days and 3.5 million schooldays each year as a result of ill-health caused by dirty water and inadequate sanitation. To this must be added the human cost. Every day around the globe, 5,000 children die from the diarrhoeal diseases associated with contaminated water; it is the second-biggest childhood killer after tuberculosis and respiratory disease.

"Sanitation is the invisible sector," says Lucky Lowe, WaterAid's representative in Madagascar. She confirms that it is far easier to get politicians to talk about water and to promise pumps and new mains supplies than it is to get a constructive debate going about pit latrines. Clean water is a good election promise. Talking about building latrines that help make that possible isn't.

On top of the hard statistics must be added less tangible human costs: the drudgery of walking miles each day to collect contaminated water for the family, or the sheer unpleasantness and indignity of using a foul-smelling, poorly draining communal latrine day in and day out. Or, for those who have nowhere else, a patch of land that has become accepted as the local open-air toilet. We should not suppose that force of habit appreciably lessens the disgust.

Disgust was certainly written on the face of eight-year-old Sidonie when we talked to her mother before the puppet show about the field "toilet" in her village. We had gone there with Claudia Lemalade, FSG's hygiene educator for Amparatanana, to talk to a family due to receive one of the project's new latrines. We stood on a pathway that led down to a small river with the typical wooden huts on one side and lush vegetation - banana plants, coconut palms and vivid, flowering shrubs - on the other.

The path, even before the rainy season, was wet in patches and drained into the small river below, as, inevitably, would the open-air defecation site a few yards from the path.

Claudia chatted with three generations of one family: Toto Suzanne, her daughter Marceline and Sidonie, Marceline's daughter. Finally the family was to get a latrine - paying around 10 per cent of the cost price (approximately £30). They had been able to pay their £3 contribution as and when they liked, in whatever instalments suited them, but the contribution had to be paid upfront before work could begin on the structure. The family had been targeted because of financial need; FSG has set families' contributions low enough to put latrines within reach of most of the poorest.

It is not hard to understand why Marceline wanted to divert her family's limited budget to pay for a latrine. "Down there is where we have to go. After dark it is really horrible for the children." Sidonie refused to discuss the matter though she had been lively enough before. As we talked, a young woman came up the hill from the river carrying a bucket. "This is to wash my baby's feet," she told us, as if to assure us that the murky water would not be used for drinking or cooking. For household use, she explained, she had limited access to a neighbour's well (itself also contaminated, according to Claudia). She understood clearly the WASH message that the puppets would later be blasting out across the village, but what, she asked us, could she do?

There is a standard image of hopeless poverty that we see on television and in poster campaigns, images usually connected with appeals for emergency aid. Yet life in these villages is far from miserable or hopeless. Men and women are visibly industrious - most have family members in work as fishermen or farmers; good-quality food is available and at this time of year the trees are laden with coconuts, lychees and jackfruit. The literacy rate of 71 per cent is reasonably high and, despite a high poverty rate of 70 per cent, when news spreads of a visit from the WaterAid people, the women come out to meet us in well-kept best clothes.

Quite small investments in sanitation could turn around that high poverty rate. But at the moment, for the vast majority of Madagascar's people, energy that could be put into education and wealth creation is being dissipated by avoidable ill-health. The Madagascan economy loses to illness around 300 times the amount the government has allocated to sanitation in its national budget, according to WaterAid.

WaterAid estimates that if Madagascar is to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the country has to increase the number of rural households being newly supplied with adequate sanitation, from roughly 485 households per month now to more than 12,000.

More and carefully focused international aid is, as always, one solution. Determined local politicians unafraid to champion an unpopular cause is another. Mme Clode said she intends to run as a local councillor next year and wants politicians to speak up for the Cinderella sector of sanitation.

Of Madagascar's local MDG targets, she said: "I expected things to move faster. Many things need doing. For example, there is no water in the market in Fenerive Est [the nearby town]. And we need more latrines." Against current orthodoxy, Mme Clode believes in communal latrines as a way of speeding things up, while government and international policy very much favours and directs finance towards family-based facilities, on the grounds that only families will keep them clean enough to prevent water-borne disease.

But her concern about the slippage in local millennium targets exactly mirrors WaterAid's concern about the big picture. The millennium goals included halving the proportion of those living without water and sanitation by 2015. Of all the targets (including poverty, education, health and environmental concerns), sanitation is most off-track. At the present rate of progress, the goal would be reached 61 years late. Yet hopes of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger depend more on sorting out safe sanitation than on any other intervention.

A report commissioned by WaterAid and released in October spelled out that, for every dollar spent on sanitation, the return on investment is roughly $9. Worldwide, the need is enormous, but tiny interventions and local ingenuity can still have a big impact. In Madagascar, a puppet show costing just £31 can make 200 children laugh. And possibly save their lives.

Sanitation by numbers

£15 Cost per head of hygiene education and good sanitation
£31 Cost of puppet show promoting hand-washing
£31.25 Cost of effective latrine with simple concrete pit lining
$23.4m Most expensive toilet in the world (for space shuttle)
$10bn Annual cost of achieving Millennium Goals
$20bn Global annual spending on bottled mineral water
1.1bn People worldwide without access to clean water
2.6bn People worldwide without an adequate toilet

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This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge