In the last 15 years, the way sanitation is treated in Brazil has changed dramatically. The picture of poor investment and danger to public health is being replaced by climbing investment and a vision of sanitation as an issue of rights, dignity and equity. The seminar “Shit and Citizenship: The Political Economy of Sanitation Investment in Brazil”, held at IDS on Monday, explored how and why this has happened.

The speakers were Alex Shankland (from the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS) and Ken Caplan (Director of Building Partnerships for Development in Water and Sanitation).

Alex and Ken explained how the politics of sanitation has evolved over that time, both nationally and locally at the level of one city, Salvador. (Brazil was one of four cases in a global study coordinated by Oxford Policy Management for Water & Sanitation Program (WSP) and World Bank on the political economy of sanitation investments.)

At the national level, former President Lula broke certain taboos on sanitation. In December 2009, Lula caused a storm by describing a mission of his government as being “to take the people out of the shit”. He has also cleverly defused ideological tensions on sanitation provision, by introducing laws which allow for a wide variety of approaches to be taken.

Things didn’t just change at a national level. In Salvador – a big, vibrant city on the North-East coast – Antonio Carlos Magalhães, a right-wing governor elected in 1990, saw the city’s poor sanitation as a disgrace and a barrier to tourism. His vision of the city as a clean, modern tourist destination led him to arrange a massive programme of investment in sanitation.

Sanitation has also moved up the ladder of importance, partly because of a sense of embarassment at Brazil’s being left behind compared to other countries. As people gain nearly universal access to electricity and water, sanitation has become the next-in-line priority for the urban poor.

Areas can be transformed by sanitation – not just physically, but in terms of their identity. Alex observes that, when a favela (shanty town) gained a sanitation system, it ceased to become a favela and became a “barrio” (neighbourhood) – raising people’s pride in the area, as well as house prices.

In their talk, Alex and Ken cover the highlights of the political economy of sanitation in Brazil over the last 15 years. The talk covers the facts (when and where great changes in investment and provision happened) but also the subtext (why things happened, and what was going on politically to make this possible).

This seminar is one of the events in our series of Water Seminars. For forthcoming events, see the STEPS Centre website.


> Shit and Citizenship: The Political Economy of Sanitation Investment in Brazil (Alex and Ken’s presentation, Slideshare)
> STEPS Centre: events
> Participation, Power and Social Change team, IDS
> Building Partnerships for Development in Water and Sanitation