17/11/2011 18:02 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 05:12 GMT

On World Toilet Day, Businesses Need to Urgently Invest in Sanitation

Tomorrow is World Toilet Day and a rare opportunity to highlight the daily struggle of the 2.5 billion people who don't have access to even the most basic toilets, as well as the simple solutions that businesses can offer to help save lives.

This isn't about comfort or privacy. In the developing world, poor sanitation kills 4,000 children each day and has shattering ongoing repercussions. The UN estimates that half of the girls who stop attending primary school in Africa do so because of the lack of toilets. Poor farmers and wage earners are less productive due to illness. Health systems are overwhelmed and national economies suffer. It is estimated that over half of all hospital beds in developing countries are taken by those suffering with diarrhoeal illnesses, a result of dirty water and poor sanitation. Without water, sanitation and hygiene, sustainable development is impossible.

Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, has urged wealthy nations to take responsibility for global development, but actually the responsibility is everyone's. I'd like to see the word 'responsibility' take on some positive connotations. Development shouldn't be about blame or guilt, it's a chance for everyone to consider how they can share their expertise to improve children's lives. Organisations like UNICEF are increasingly acting as a convener, creating networks of industries that can act as agents of social change. During emergencies, it is businesses which are innovating and breaking through obstacles such as access and logistics, as well as writing all-important cheques.

After Haiti's devastating earthquake wiped out all telecoms, mobile phone operators jumped to the task of setting up rapid communications platforms to assist in reuniting lost children with their families. After Pakistan's floods contaminated the water supply of 20 million people, home and garden furnishing giants pooled contacts and spending power to procure millions of low cost buckets for use at emergency water points.

We're starting to see business leaders consider their skill sets, sharing their expertise and opening their contact books. Thinking long term, businesses might even get a return on their investment. After all, increasing the percentage of the global population with a secure livelihood is the only real growth market in these economic times. It's human nature to want something in return, so let's embrace that, work in co-operation and share knowledge.

As one of the wealthiest nations, it's easy to say that money fixes problems but donors need to know that their money is being invested intelligently. I've recently returned from Togo, one of the poorest countries in the world, where materialism, resources and infrastructure do not exist, but the real detriment to development is the absence of critical knowledge which we take for granted.

I don't even remember what age I learned to wash my dirty hands to prevent sickness, but it's this absent sixth sense (education) which is halting the life chances of millions of children.

As head of The Co-operative Pharmacy, I wanted to use our business and social objectives, which are focused on keeping people in the UK healthy and giving back to communities, and explore whether we could use this knowledge further afield.

We want to help to identify and communicate the absolute basic knowledge required for vulnerable children to prevent life-threatening illness. In reality it comes down to basic hygiene and knowing how to stop your own body from causing your demise.

Our members and customers are informed about our UNICEF partnership when they come into the pharmacy, which strengthens our relationship with them. Our staff appreciate this investment in vulnerable children, so we acknowledge that there are business benefits.

We chose to focus on Togo, West Africa, because diarrhoea causes a third of all deaths among children under the age of five and there's just 120,000 toilets in a country of 5.8 million. Wembley stadium alone has 2,618 toilets.

Proper sanitation and hand washing is the answer to child mortality in Togo, it is the starting point for the success of every other development programme that UNICEF work on. But before that we need to modernise the thinking of an entire nation. There's no point building toilets if they are not then used.

Our partnership with UNICEF supports a community led strategy to trigger communities into collective decision - to build their own toilets. This is the least reported revolution of our times but an important one. Health teams visit communities, village by village, setting up 'triggering sessions' with local facilitators, often religious leaders. They draw a circle in the dirt that represents the village and ask the families to identify where they defecate, marking the spot with coloured sand. It quickly becomes obvious that the village is toxic. The strategy involves invoking disgust to 'trigger' communities into a collective decision to take action. After a triggering session, the community is asked to name a date when it will become 'open defecation free'. The motivation is so great that communities build their own latrines, often within a matter of months. Our partnership will help to build 7,800 toilets in 390 villages, to improve the health of an estimated 195,000 children and their families.

I think that it is right that we have pledged 0.7% of our GDP to international development. It's in our interest for our leaders to be thinking about the bigger picture, whether the reasoning is global economics, counter terrorism or morality.

Maybe we can all take note, and think about our own smaller picture and how we can share expertise. You don't have to work in governments, in development or even in emerging markets to join this revolution.