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Community-led total sanitation

The Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) approach aims to encourage community ownership of hygiene and change attitudes toward open defecation 

2007 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Photo: Scott Harrison / charity

From: Sanitation – Footsteps 73

How to promote and support safe sanitation for all

‘Community-led total sanitation’ was pioneered in Bangladesh by Kamal Kar (a development consultant from India) and the Village Education Resource Centre while they were evaluating an NGO’s traditional subsidised sanitation programme. They wanted to convince the NGO to stop subsidising toilet construction because subsidies in the past had not led to community ownership and toilet usage. Instead, they suggested that the NGO should encourage people to help themselves. They developed an approach called Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) and it spread fast within Bangladesh among both Bangladeshi and international NGOs.

At the heart of the CLTS approach is a shift away from subsidising toilet construction for individual households towards changing attitudes and behaviour of the whole community in order to stop open defecation. This is achieved through mobilising the community. As a result, community members use their own initiatives to build latrines. CLTS does not identify standards or designs for latrines, but encourages local creativeness. This leads to greater ownership, affordability and therefore sustainability. The box below compares the CLTS approach with the traditional approach to sanitation.

Traditional approach to sanitation Community-led total sanitation
Starts with: Things e.g. latrines People

Core activity: 

Constructing latrines Inspiring people and helping them move towards action
Latrines designed by: Engineers Community innovators
Number of designs: One or a few Many
Materials: Cement, pipes, bricks Often initially bamboo, jute bags, plastic, tin
Cost: High Can be very low
Indicators: Latrines constructed Communities free of open sanitation
Sustainability: Partial and patchy Very high so far
Key motivation: Subsidy Self-respect
Coverage/usage: Partial Total
Who benefits?: Usually the better off All including the poorest


The facilitator’s job is not to convince the community to stop open defecation and start constructing toilets. Instead, it is to assist the community in analysing the local sanitation situation. This generally triggers a sense of disgust and embarrassment and motivates the community to stop open defecation. It is important that the facilitator does not preach or tell people what to do, but instead asks simple questions to draw people’s attention to the issues.

Throughout the process, community members are encouraged to use local terms to describe faeces rather than the polite terms, in order to break the taboos surrounding sanitation.

The following are some of the ways used to trigger CLTS:

Transect walk 

The process often starts with an informal talk with a few community members during a walk through the village (a ‘transect walk’). During the walk, areas of open defecation are pointed out as well as different types of latrines currently in use. It is important to stop in the areas of open defecation and spend time there asking questions. Having their attention drawn to the unpleasant sight and smell by a visitor to the community is a key factor in triggering mobilisation.

Once the interest of a few community members has been captured, the process continues with all community members.

Mapping of defecation areas

Photo: Lyla Mehta

Photo: Lyla Mehta

Mapping involves creating a simple map of the community to indicate households, resources and problems, and to stimulate discussion. The map is often drawn on the ground. All households should be invited to locate themselves on the map, and use a leaf or stone to mark whether they have a latrine or not. The areas of open defecation are also marked and lines drawn to connect them to the households that visit them. The map can trigger discussions about when and how far some people walk to defecate and what this means in terms of safety, as well as indicating the contamination of water sources from the areas of open defecation.

The size of the sanitation problem can be illustrated by calculating the amount of faeces produced. Households can use their own methods and local measures for calculating how much human excreta they are generating each day. Multiplication can be used to find a figure for the whole community, and to calculate the amount of faeces produced each week, month or year. The quantities usually surprise the community. The calculations lead into further discussions about where the faeces go and the effects of having faeces on the ground.

The key point in the process which triggers CLTS is when the community realises that open defecation needs to stop. The discussion often turns to who would defecate in the open the next day, or who would take a bath in the river. If no-one would do these things, the community is ready to discuss alternatives to open defecation. At this point, the facilitator should point out that he or she is not there to provide a solution, sell toilets or subsidise latrine construction.

The community begins discussions about what action to take. If they ask the facilitator a question, he or she turns it back to them, so that they give an answer themselves. If people express an interest in constructing toilets but say it is too costly, the facilitator could draw a picture of a simple pit latrine built from locally available materials, to show that it does not have to be expensive.

Action planning
Activities that communities might decide to carry out include:

  • forming a sanitation action group with representatives from every neighbourhood in the community
  • making a list or map of households and their access to sanitation at present
  • developing individual family plans to stop open defecation
  • digging pits and using them as temporary latrines until others are constructed
  • getting wealthy households to start constructing latrines immediately. These households could lend land, donate wood or bamboo for constructing latrines, or allow poor families to use their latrine in the short-term
  • looking for suppliers of latrine construction materials.

Children’s activities

Children can be very strong advocates against open defecation. For example, they might lead processions where they shout slogans or sing songs about the need to stop open defecation. In some communities they use little flags to mark faeces to draw attention to them.


Since the year 2000, CLTS has spread to many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Bolivia. Using the approach in these other countries has raised some challenges.

The CLTS approach has challenged traditional mindsets and practices, particularly the idea that subsidies are necessary because people cannot afford sanitation. Using CLTS, community members are not assisted by outside subsidy but are empowered to help themselves and each other. They are motivated by the realisation that unless they stop defecating in the open, the risks of disease will remain for everyone in the community. This means that:

  • agencies that use the CLTS approach need to have confidence in the capability and social solidarity of communities. Agencies need to become facilitators rather than providers
  • agencies that have previously provided subsidies for sanitation have sometimes found it difficult to use the CLTS approach because they find it hard to break the community’s dependency on them for provision of hardware
  • agencies may find it difficult making the CLTS approach work in communities where other agencies are subsidising and promoting costly models of toilets.

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is carrying out a research and networking programme, supported by DFID, called Going to Scale? The Potential of Community-Led Total Sanitation. This project aims to gain a better understanding of the issues and challenges at community level so that the CLTS approach can become a widespread movement which supports the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

For more information on CLTS and the IDS-led research go to: or contact Petra Bongartz, email: [email protected]

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