Guest blog Systemic Inequalities in WaSH – It’s Me; Not You!

Opening Remarks at the Water Institute Water and Health Conference Where Science Meets Policy by Dr. Aaron Salzberg  Director of the Water Institute Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor Gillings School of Global Public Health University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For many of us in the global North, it’s probably pretty easy as we connect from the comfort of our homes or offices; but for some of you in the south, we know you’ve been scrambling out at odd hours to find a place with good wifi so you can watch or listen, perhaps on your phone. We appreciate the special effort that you’ve made to join us and to be part of the conference. And we want to acknowledge that we know that the way in which we are holding our discussion about systemic inequalities is itself an example of a systemic inequality.

Those of you that know our conference, know that we like to use these plenaries to challenge ourselves - to review the evidence, stimulate critical thinking, and try to look at our work in new ways so we can learn and to do better.

In many ways, today’s plenary theme is no different. Addressing disparities and advancing equitable access to WaSH services is a core goal of the Water and Health Conference and, in my view, gets to the heart of who we are as a sector and why we do what we do. After all, this is what we are about, not water and sanitation for some, but access for all.

But it may be, that we are allowing - consciously or unconsciously - systemic inequalities to stand the way of our achieving this goal, and achieving the real impacts that we hope to have for the beneficiaries of our work. This is the space we hope to explore in this plenary discussion.

So welcome.

I’ll be frank, I’ve struggled with how to introduce this topic. At times, planning for this session made me uncomfortable as I reflected on my own fears and failings. At times paralyzed.

In the end, I think this fear is what makes it easy for us to avoid discussing these issues.

But this is why we thought it was so important for us to talk about these issues today – there are times when, we just need to say things out loud, so that we can acknowledge where we are and begin to think together about where we need to go.

And so, like many of you, when I look at where we are, I am shocked, humbled, and concerned.

How is it that so many of us, especially those of us with white privilege, have remained ignorant of the growing issues around the unequal treatment of people of color within the United States, in particular Black, Indigenous and Latino communities. That we have ignored or left unaddressed the deeply rooted systemic practices that have led to the indiscriminate attacks on, and the discriminatory treatment of, communities of color.

That we ignored the growing wage and wealth inequalities here in the United States and across the globe. That we turned a blind eye to the fact that the average white family in America has roughly ten times the wealth of an average black family, and that in some regions, the average black family has less than $10 US dollars in total wealth.

That we, and likely even our children, won’t see gender parity in our lifetimes. That at current rates, and this was before covid, that, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap – deeply impacting communities of color and low- income communities around the world.

George Floyd

That Trayvon Martin, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, and countless others had to die before Black Lives mattered. That we have watched as one in every 920 black Americans, and that one in every 1,100 indigenous Americas, has died due to covid-19. That the meaning of “Black Lives Matter”, that Black lives are disproportionately marginalized, systematically marginalized, and that we have failed to value Black lives in the same way that we would recognize our own, is still not accepted by so many.

That we use our ability to speak english well - to oppress, manipulate, and exert power over others.

That we use our titles, education, privileged status, to exclude, intimidate, or limit opportunities to others. To push other faculty, educators, and researchers out.

That we have stood by and enjoyed our status while many of our neighbors and partners – who easily work as hard as I do - have lost their jobs, can’t pay their rent, are standing in long lines outside of food banks, or live and struggle every day in conditions that are not safe.

This is also true for the work that we do on water.

That by providing water and sanitation services to an informal settlement on the outskirts of a city, we are allowing the government to skirt its fundamental responsibilities and continue its oppressive practices of not legally recognizing marginalized communities. That it is easier for us to provide the services than to force the government to recognize the rights of these individuals and grant them land tenure, access to capital, and extend municipal services.

That by providing wells to rural villages that are safe from microbial contaminants but are contaminated with lead from the pipes and pumps, may - while preventing one kind of disease - be keeping some children from ever reaching their full potential.

That we’ve let the SDG’s define success and have invested in “vanity metrics” – the number of people served rather than measures related to capacity, autonomy, community.

And how often have we used the phrase “they just don’t understand” – that if they only just thought like me, agreed with my data, agreed with my methods, were only more rationale. In truth, it’s not that they don’t understand; but that I don’t understand; that we don’t understand.

These are painful realizations.

We, of course, didn’t get here overnight. These challenges have been with us forever and exacerbated through colonialism, slavery, and divisive politics.

But the blinders of privilege have made it possible for many of us to not feel the daily reality that many are exposed to, and the same sense of urgency that many of you here have.

Covid may have changed that.

Covid has reminded us of how fragile life is at a global scale. And, how ill-prepared we are to address the challenges we will face in the 21st century - challenges like the spread of infectious diseases, climate change, food and water insecurity, access to basic services and health care, even here in the United States. Afterall, our global leaders can’t even have a civil conversation on even the most basic policy issues.

We fear for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our future.

And I know that I have also succumbed to pressure from others. I’ve adopted the vanity metrics of the SDG’s and have been driven by numbers. Maybe at the expense of the very people I was hoping to help.

So for some, covid may be a time of awakening but, at the same time, I want to acknowledge that many of you have long been aware of these issues and are likely further along. You know this – either through your own personal experiences or because of the work you do. This is especially true for those of you that come from communities that have experienced long-standing systemic inequalities and deal with these issues on a daily basis.

I hope for today’s conversation, that you’ll stay with us and share your experiences on how we can chart a path forward.

Because this is the goal of today’s Plenary – not to blame, or instill guilt, but to find a more deliberative way forward with our eyes wide open to the impacts of our actions. And to move beyond the paralysis and fear. 

I’ve used the term of ‘people of color’ in my remarks. I recognize that black and brown people around the world are a majority of the global population. I recognize that non-white people become people of color only in the presence of white folks - this is the language of the oppressor. Moving forward, we will aim to use historically underrepresented or historically marginalized.

Expect and accept non-closure - this is just the start of the conversation, a beginning for many. I want to recognize again that many others are already farther along in this conversation.

Finally, stay with us. If you are anything like me, this may be uncomfortable. That’s ok. We are not pointing fingers. I invite everyone to stay in the solution and help us identify new ways of working.

So let’s get to it.

The full speech and the discussion with Addressing Systemic Inequalities in WaSH – It’s Me; Not You and the discussion with  the panelists below is on the YouTube at the bottom of this page

  • Maitreyi Bordia Das World Bank Practice Manager, Urban, Resilience and Land Global Practice
  • Nick Hepworth Water Witness Founder and Executive Director
  • Juste Nansi IRC, Burkina Faso Country Director
  • Joanna Fatch AU/NEPAD Southern African Network of Water Centres of Excellence Project Manager
  • Madhu Krishna Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Director, Water, Sanitation & Hygiene and Gender Equality, India Country Office


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