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The 'shame question' in CLTS

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There has been an interesting debate going on about the elements of shame, fear and disgust used during CLTS triggering session. The debate has been between those who believe that the element of shame as applied during a CLTS trigger is unethical as it amounts to degrading and embarrassing the community, and those who believe that the element of shame is actually positive, and that it indeed awakens the community to the realities of open defecation.

My take is that both groups are genuinely concerned about acting in the best interest of the community and the differences are based on misunderstandings. These misunderstandings may be due to the following reasons:

  • Whether people have a common and shared understanding of what ‘shame’ means.
  • Whether people have the same understanding on how to facilitate CLTS trigger.

The word shame is a controversial term as it is open to different interpretations depending on one’s culture or background. For as long as the interpretations vary from individual to individual, and from culture to culture then we shall remain stuck in a quagmire. So the first thing is to try and develop some common understanding.

Defining shame
In an article titled, Shame may not be so bad after all, Dr. Joyce Brothers argues that there are two kinds of shame. The ‘good shame’ and the ‘bad shame’. She says that good shame ‘can lead to self discovery and growth’ while the bad shame ‘humiliates and makes you feel bad about the way you look or feel’. She goes ahead to assign the following attributes to the good shame:

  • Gives you new insight about yourself.
  • Encourages you to make improvements.
  • Expands your value system.
  • Makes you more sensitive to others.
  • Makes you want to elevate the culture around you

Whereas bad shame has the following attributes:-

  • Attacks you as a person.
  • Eats away at self-esteem.
  • Evokes an angry response.
  • Gets passed along to your children.
  • Leaves you feeling helpless


The people who practice and believe in the efficacy of CLTS are mostly of the view that CLTS triggering evokes the good shame which enables the communities to have insights about their sanitation practices, and consequently make improvements about their sanitation situation. On the other hand the people who are uncomfortable with the element of shame in CLTS triggering, believe that it eats away the self esteem of the community and attacks the community’s dignity. As a result of this they may fear that CLTS is likely to evoke an angry response from the community. Due to this underlying fear, they criticize CLTS as ethically unviable and culturally unfriendly to the communities.

Shame and disgust in CLTS triggering
I will try to share my thoughts on this topic based on my experience with CLTS. First I want to start by saying that a CLTS trigger can either evoke the good shame or the bad shame. What makes the difference is facilitation! A good facilitator will conduct a CLTS trigger in a way that allows the community to collectively and in a participatory manner analyze their sanitation situation. In this analysis, through the tools employed by CLTS, a community comes to self realization that their acts of open defecation are disgusting. In disgust, I have seen some people spit, others turn away from the direction of shit. Still others have vomited at the sight of shit. Disgust is one of the key elements of a CLTS trigger. Disgust is ignited by the unpleasant sight of shit, more so when the shit is still in its fresh and wet state.

On the other hand, the shame that is evoked during a CLTS trigger touches on ones inner emotion which is ignited by a personal realization of an offensive behaviour or action. Shame brings with it feelings of remorse and sorrow. In this case, a person takes personal responsibility for the offensive behaviour that they now feel apologetic for, and consequently desire to take corrective action. It is important to note that in this context a sobering effect bears on a person, and in a way they come back to their senses and desire to do what is right and appropriate. A person who had become accustomed to open defecation, and had even come to take it for granted as normal behaviour, awakes from his stupor and becomes ‘enlightened’. This state of enlightenment results in a self realization that open defecation is repugnant, and it unleashes positive energy that seeks to engage in constructive action that will lead to an end to open defecation.

Another critical element that needs to be appreciated is that when the triggering is done right, the emotions of shame and sorrow generated do not result in hostility towards the CLTS facilitator. Instead some of kind of congeniality and friendship develops. Next time the facilitator meets the village, the community is often eager to take him around the village and show him the positive changes that have taken place.

In other words the shame evoked during a CLTS trigger is very different from the one the opponents of CLTS have in mind. It is the good shame. It is not the bad shame that everyone abhors including proponents of CLTS. However, I do admit that sometimes ill prepared CLTS facilitators may create bad shame in the community, and perhaps this is the experience some of the opponents of CLTS have. An ill prepared facilitator conducts the process in a manner that puts down the community. The process is not a genuine participatory session in which the community collectively analyses its sanitation profile. Instead the facilitator pontificates and lectures the community on the hazards of poor sanitation.

Getting it wrong, getting it right
I also wish to mention a few examples in which ill prepared facilitators have inadvertently got it wrong. CLTS encourages the use of crude word of shit as it is in the local language. A poor facilitator may insensitively start using this term liberally without first seeking the endorsement of the community. This may elicit negative reaction from the community and may result in bad shame. A good facilitator on the other hand will conduct the process in a way that enables the community on its own to mention the crude name for shit in the local language. Of course most the time the rural community rarely mentions this crude word quickly. Therefore a good facilitator must embody the virtue of patience. Through patience and further probing a community eventually mentions the word ‘shit’ in the local language. When the crude name of ‘shit’ is imposed in a community meeting without going through a participatory process that ‘legitimizes’ it and gives it collective ownership in a meeting, it amounts to humiliating the community. As such a community may feel resentful that an outsider is imposing on them something that is contrary to their values. This ignites bad shame.

Another example that can cause humiliation to the community during CLTS trigger is when a facilitator is quick to tell the community that they ‘eat their own shit’. When an outsider comes to a community and confronts them by telling them that they eat their own shit, this is likely to come across as an insult! It is this kind of an approach that creates bad shame. On the other hand, a skilled CLTS facilitator will conduct a process in which the community participates in analyzing its sanitation and hygiene profile and comes to a verdict that they are indeed eating their own shit! The facilitator therefore only takes up the cue that has already been provided by the community. So when he tells the community that they are eating their shit, he is only repeating what the community has said. Facilitation in this manner cannot be seen to be demeaning or humiliating to a community. It does not create bad shame. Instead it creates good shame that inspires the community to improve on their sanitation situation.

Good facilitation is key
I have mentioned the above two examples fully cognizant that there are many other ways in which uninitiated facilitator may humiliate a community during CLTS trigger. In this sense I am sympathetic and indeed concur that CLTS trigger may result in creating bad shame which may serve to reinforce the views of CLTS opponents. However, we need to be clear here that the trouble is not with the CLTS tools per se but with the skills of a CLTS facilitator!

When a community is subjected to bad shame, it feels humiliated, resentful, angry, and develops an attitude of non-cooperation with the facilitator. Bad shame generates feelings of negativity in the community that may result in a confrontation with the facilitator. I remember an incident where an over zealous facilitator carried shit, and brought it close to the noses of the people and started demanding that they smell it. This evoked feelings of hostility in the meeting and some community members openly protested against how the process was being conducted. Unfortunately this happened at a time when CLTS was being showcased to some CLTS skeptics. At the end of it all the skeptics only became more convinced that the approach was untenable and culturally unfriendly.

From my experiences of being involved in CLTS, I would like to distinguish good shame and bad shame as follows:

Good shame in CLTS

  • Results in self awareness and realization of practicing offensive behaviour.
  • Leads to a desire and enthusiasm to change poor sanitation and stop open defecation.
  • Ignites feelings of congeniality towards the CLTS facilitator.
  • Ignites feelings of sorrow and regret about practicing open defecation.
    Provides a spark for change


Bad Shame in CLTS

  • Leads to indifference towards any initiative to improve sanitation situation.
  • Ignites feelings of hostility towards the facilitator.
  • Ignites feelings of being defensive about open defecation.
  • Reinforces resistance to change


Finally, I would also wish to invite your comments and to ask that you join in this debate. I appreciate that the debate on good shame and bad shame, and which kind of shame CLTS triggers, is going to be with us for as long as CLTS is still alive and kicking. In my view the debate should therefore be geared towards improving our understanding and practice of CLTS rather than on ‘silencing’ our critics.

Philip Vincent Otieno is an independent CLTS trainer and consultant. He previously worked for Plan Kenya. He can be contacted at pvotieno@yahoo.com

You may also like to read Emotional triggers: Shame, shock, disgust and dignity

Date: 24 April 2012


Submitted by Nipun Vinayak (not verified) on

Much is being talked about the propriety of using the element of ‘shame’ for triggering community in CLTS. My limited experience suggests –

1. a lot depends on who’s triggering, and more importantly whether he’s perceived as an ‘insider’/well wisher or an ‘outsider’/didactic….the former gets acceptable, because it is appreciated nothing is done to put down anyone.

2. ‘shame’ has been found useful in generating collectiveness…lately, even in rural communities, there’s much individualism…the ‘sane’ counsel of elderly/wise is not much followed…‘shame’ is perceived as a common determinant.

3. Such qualified ‘shame’…and especially with a realisation that there’s no one tool to achieve results may work. The proof of pudding is in eating. Whether such village sustains odf will prove whether shame was necessary in the instance…

Nipun Vinayak
Deputy Secretary to the Government of India,
Cabinet Secretariat

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

As soon as we learned about CLTS we trained our staff and began implementing the pure form of CLTS with no subsidies or designs. For once people seemed to take an action towards ODF. Prior to CLTS I was involved in projects in 100s of villages (over 25 years) where latrines were seldom a priority and if they were built they were not used. CLTS seemed to work. It requires excellent facilitation skills. When it is done poorly iit looks like shame only.
Experiential learning is the key not shame.