The Curate’s egg is a phrase which entered the English language from the satirical magazine punch. In a cartoon from the 1890s, a lowly curate is portrayed trying to impress his superior at dinner. The bishop notices that he is eating a bad egg, but the curate cheerfully replies that it is not a problem because it is ‘parts of it are excellent’. Which, if it needs saying, is obviously nonsense as an egg cannot be good in parts, if it is bad, it is bad.
I was thinking about this last week when we were discussing some details about urine diversion dry toilets. Which are often called composting toilets.
In reading material about them, I began to notice that there was a divide between the way they are understood - some think of them as imperfect anaerobic digesters, others as imperfect aerobic composting units. And the problem is that in thinking in such a linear way about them (in either direction) seems to discount the possibility that they can be both - both operating aerobically and anaerobically at the same time. And also seems to avoid the point that like the curate’s egg, however you try to dress them up or however you try to understand the processes, they’re still imperfect.
And this becomes important when people know that they are imperfect and are aware that some better options exist. I was reading this interesting story about a backlash against the VIP latrines in eThekwini (which I have been reading quite a lot about recently). The municipality has a policy of constructing VIP latrines as a low-cost way to provide people with better sanitation. This involves building the units and also having them emptied periodically. They have also now suppled 80 000 simple urine diversion toilets, where the faeces falls into buckets that the users have to empty.
According to the article, 88.3 of people in the area have flush toilets and those who have only the UD bucket toilets are saying that they should have flush rather than the UD or VIP systems. They are saying that the options they are given are Curate’s eggs.
Which is an interesting point of human psychology. I was reading previously about communities who were exposed to idea of sanitation via CLTS rejecting the whole thing because they’d been told that their aspirations were too high. Here, the toilets are being rejected because people know that better sanitation options are available and therefore by being offered something which is perceived as being of low quality, they’re being treated like second-class citizens. Of course, they are right, they are being treated like second-class citizens.
Rationally, though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. If you have no sanitation and someone offers to give you something, you are supposed to welcome and use it. Even if you are aware that better options exist, you are supposed to stoically welcome the development as a first step for you on the sanitation ladder.
I just don’t know what you do when a #WASH intervention is rejected because users know that you could/should be giving them something better.