White, yellow or red flag: How Lao students keep a sharp eye on their parents’ hygiene


Flags are a common sight in Laos, but in a couple of villages in Savannakhet, there are an awful lot of them on display. In plain white, yellow and red they hang above doors and dot the villages with colourful freckles. They carry a simple message: If the household's toilet and compound is clean (red) or dirty (white). Fourth grade students put them there as part of a new monitoring system to check sanitation habits.

While for years WASH experts were sometimes struggling to convince communities to change their habits, a creative new approach led to rapid change here. Instead of adults checking on adults, they let the children do it. Francois Rabelais, one of the great Renaissance writers, said five hundred years ago: "A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit."

It is still true today. Working with children is a smart way to trigger change in adults. "Until now, governments and adults monitored what the community decided to change," explains the deputy head of the Rural Development and Poverty Reduction Office in Atsaphone District, Savannakhet Province, Mr Phoumy Lathbuavone. "People did not listen, but they always listen to their children and spoil them! So why not use this?" And so the power to control the hygiene of whole villages was laid into the hands of primary school kids.

The village head of Nakaomin village, Mr Bounlon, is convinced by the system. Apart from training mathematical skills, they also learn social skills: "Children learn about WASH and gain confidence in communicating with older people." The system is generally accepted in the village. Mr Bounlon's first flag was a yellow one and he remembers that with great laughter. One major factor for success is apparently the competitive spirit of the students: "They did not like their parents having bad flags and wanted to reach red as fast as possible and so pushed their parents to change." Before, teams from the district were tasked with disseminating WASH knowledge, but this was not enough.

According to Mr Phoumy from Atsaphone Poverty Reduction office, there are three main reasons why integrating the children in monitoring WASH projects is a smart idea: First, adults are more reluctant to change; children, however, more flexible and eager to learn. Second, they can influence their parents. And third, once they're grown up, they'll teach their own offspring.

The system was developed within the Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All programme of SNV in Lao PDR and is based on an idea by a teacher from the local school, in which memory games were used for kids to memorize rules about sanitation and hygiene. In another project, children put up white flags where people had shit on open ground. These elements were combined in the scheme that is now in place and working. Mr Phoumy worked most of the details out together with SNV advisor Phetmany Cheuasongkham.

As of now, the students of one school monitor three villages. Questions like who will pay for the flags are still not yet decided upon. Another challenge is not to overload the normal school schedule. Although important, normal school lessons have to go on. But local authorities are convinced that the new approach is working: "This can bring rapid change to communities", says Mr Phoumy. An expansion to four more schools is already planned and teachers are being trained.