Problem-Solving Tips from a Changemaker
Jack Sim and the World Toilet Organization
How Humor and Humility Has Helped Bring Health and Dignity to Billions
Trying to realize a new idea can be fraught with many challenges. Perhaps no one has more experience of this than the social entrepreneurs out there solving the world’s social problems called Changemakers. In this short series, ANA BLUE WING interviews the Changemakers it supports through its ANA BLUE WING Program to learn more about their concrete problem-solving strategies and ideas. Whether you are embarking on a new business project or just trying to solve life’s little problems, these articles may provide helpful hints to assist you in your endeavors. For this article, ANA BLUE WING interviewed Jack Sim, whose World Toilet Organization is promoting initiatives to increase access to toilets and sanitation around the globe. At the end of the article, there is information about how you can help support the Changemakers and their work.
Toilets and sanitation may be unglamorous topics, but their absence is a public health crisis. Around the world, 673 million people still practice open defecation, and at least 2 billion drink from water contaminated with feces. Lack of sanitation is estimated to kill more than 430,000 people yearly from diarrhea alone, many children under five. One quirky but highly effective force for change in this area is the World Toilet Organization (“the other WTO”), founded by Singaporean entrepreneur Jack Sim. In the two decades since the WTO’s founding in 2001, people without proper sanitation have fallen from 40% of humanity to 25%. The WTO’s plain-spoken, humorous approach has contributed immensely to this effort.
How did Sim build such an effective organization, and how does he use humor to further its goals? We spoke to this idiosyncratic changemaker about finding ways to achieve the impossible.
Tip 1: Believe the Problem Can Be Solved
“When a mother gives birth to a child, she does not write a business plan,” says Sim. “But her objective is clear: for her child to grow up and be healthy, educated, and successful. This is non-negotiable, so she will find a way to make it happen.”
Sim adopted a similar mindset from the earliest days of the World Toilet Organization. Even with his successful career in construction beforehand, he needed more money or connections to change the world single-handedly. The WTO was still a one-person show. But the facts and figures of the sanitation problem were too astonishing to ignore. So he asked himself not whether he could solve the problem but how he was going to solve it.
Sim attributes this to the example set by his family members, who impressed on him as a child the importance of following through. His mother and grandmother never went to school, but they were highly creative and resourceful. He inherited his two mottos from them: “Ask the right questions” and “there must be a way.”
Tip 2: Learn to Mobilize Other People by Seeing Their Point of View
Sim’s goal is to get the problem of sanitation solved. Exactly who solves it is not the issue. The more people who join in to help, the better, and he is more than happy for everyone to claim credit for their own contributions. As an orchestrator of a global movement, he has led a movement that has brought change to thousands of times as many people as he could have helped by fundraising and building toilets himself. “Our movement has gotten hundreds of millions of toilets built by urging politicians to follow through on their promises,” he says.
But this collaborative approach didn’t always come naturally to Sim. In the early days of the WTO, he found himself frustrated by his lack of success recruiting officials to support the cause. Then he had an epiphany: the problem was not their lack of cooperation, but his inability to convince them. After all, the WTO was his baby, not theirs. “A mother can’t start knocking on doors asking others to take care of her baby for her,” he says.
So Sim invested in a four-year master’s degree in public administration at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to learn how bureaucrats see the world. First, he studied the key restrictions that govern officials in their decisions: power, budget, and authority. Ultimately, he says, the secret is simply to make it easier for them to say yes. If they have the blessing and protection of an even higher authority, they are more likely to offer support.
Tip 3: There Are No Failures—Only Works in Progress
At one point, Sim was trying dozens of different ideas at once, all at different stages of development. “It is a numbers game,” says Sim. “If you try twenty things, one must be successful.”
But even when a project is not immediately successful, Sim does not label it a failure. He prefers the term “work in progress.” Some of the WTO’s “works in progress” deliver a steadily growing trickle of results from the beginning, while others lie dormant for years before suddenly achieving their goal. The important thing is to remember that any idea becomes useful when its time is right.
Tip 4: Use Humor to Communicate
For many people, the topic of toilets is embarrassing, even distasteful, and not fit for polite company. “But when I make people laugh about it, that breaks the ice,” says Sim. “Then they cannot stop talking about it!” He gleefully uses words like “pee” and “poop” to liven up his speeches, and is always game to dress up in toilet-themed costumes to promote the cause.
Sim sees humor as an important part of storytelling, which retains its ancient role as a driver of cultural change. “When you can make people laugh, they listen to you,” he says. “Senator Mechai taught me that.” Mechai Viravaidya, of course, was the Thai politician whose tireless work promoting condoms and AIDS awareness in Thailand earned him the nickname “Mr. Condom.” It’s no coincidence that Sim proudly bears the nickname “Mr. Toilet.”
What to do with that attention once it is captured? The WTO follows through by telling audiences the facts, which are often shocking. This is usually followed by anger at the injustice of the issue and a powerful urge to do something about it. “Those are the four steps,” says Sim. “Laughter, shock, anger, and desire to solve the problem.”
Future Challenges for the WTO
Sim’s goal in founding the World Toilet Association was to ensure that everybody in the world had a clean and safely managed toilet. He is making great progress towards that goal. He cites one of his many triumphs for awareness-raising as convincing the United Nations to officially recognize November 19—the anniversary of the WTO’s founding—as World Toilet Day. “I am happy to be able to do at least one good thing this lifetime,” says Sim. But despite his progress, the problem is far from solved. At 65, Sim’s current goal is to recruit everybody in the world to solve this problem together, to create an institution that will remain long after he is gone.