Stifling Access to Sanitation through Privatisation of Public Facilities in Ghana: The Cases of Human Rights and Dignity

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Public toilet sign on wall

Blog by Dr. Felix Nana Kofi Ofori, REACT Humanitarian Network, Oxford, UK. Former PhD student, Bristol Law School, UWE Bristol.

Human well-being, now and in the future, depends on a healthy environment characterised by access to safe sanitation in society. [1] This blog examines the challenges confronting majority of Ghanaians whose access to sanitation, is hindered by privatisation and limited provision of public facilities; and where these are available, they are exorbitantly expensive thereby stifling and violating the dignity and human rights of the people. [2]

Access to sanitation as a right, evokes controversies in international human rights jurisprudence compared to the conventional rights. However, it is no secret within the Ghanaian society, that majority of the citizenry in cities, regional centres, including the remotest communities of the country, lack access to sanitation. [3] Fundamentally, lack of access to sanitation is a violation of the human rights and dignity of Ghanaians; as enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), [4] as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in 2010).[5] However, under Ghana’s liberalisation and privatisation agenda, which was promoted by the IMF/World Bank[6], majority of public toilet/latrine facilities in the country were privatised with a view  to enhance the efficient management and provision of services for the people. Furthermore, since all human rights are interdependent there is little doubt that access to sanitation is critical to achieving human dignity which is at the fore-front of protecting human health.[6a] [6b]

As society evolves so the ambit of rights grow to protect and promote the welfare and dignity of peoples globally, and particularly in this context, Ghana. Sanitation is crucially one area in which the dignity of most Ghanaians is violated because of the failure of successive governments to establish facilities to protect this right. [7] In its preamble, the United Nations Charter provides that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. [8] Thus, there can be no realisation of human rights without respect for human dignity; therefore, sanitation should be given critical priority by the government in allocating budgetary and physical resources to ensure that Ghanaians gain access to effective sanitation services. The duty to establish sanitation and hygiene facilities in Ghana as other countries, spans three obligations- availability, accessibility and affordability. [9] 

First, availability means that the government establishes public sanitation facilities within reasonable distance of the people’s reach; whilst, ensuring that poorer communities are not denied access to sanitation for want of paying. [10] Second, accessibility, is defined by the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme and Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, as a standard 30 minutes time for someone to go to and return from a sanitation facility. [11] Also, it is the responsibility of the government and local authorities to ensure that children and persons with disabilities coupled with the location of the sanitation facilities do not impede access to such services. Third, affordability, as a human rights criterion, requires that “access to sanitation facilities and services be made reasonably affordable to all peoples, especially in the poorer part of cities and deprived communities of a county”. [12] Whilst the UNDP sets a threshold of 3 per cent, that by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is 4 per cent and that by the Asian Development Bank is 5 per cent respectively. [13] Despite the above established thresholds, the government and public agencies responsible for sanitation services in Ghana, continue to violate the right to sanitation; by failing, to adopt creative strategies to ameliorate any hardships pricing mechanisms impose on the people regarding access to sanitation services.

Strategically, the World Bank plays vital roles in the development of nations, especially Ghana, by offering financial and policy directions to help them improve their socio-economic services of which sanitation constitutes an integral part. Privatisation of water and sanitation services is one area in which the World Bank’s strategic guidance had created mixed consequences in Ghana. The World Bank opines that private participation in the sanitation services is beneficial to the state and its people because it introduces efficient and judicious management of services; and it secures the requisite funding to repair and maintain old infrastructures. [14] Conversely, larger parts of communities in cities and town throughout Ghana practise open defecation due to limited or non-availability of sanitation facilities. [15] The majority view is that privatisation not only stifles access to sanitation in further violation of the people’s dignity, but also breaches established obligations of governments to protect access to sanitation, as enshrined in International human rights law. [16] This resonates with the premise that economic and political expediencies coupled with national policies cannot be deployed by the government and its agencies to commit blatant illegalities concerning the implementation of privatisation agenda.

Primarily, the right to sanitation is considered as a private responsibility enjoining the individual to build his/her own latrine or pay to connect to the sewerage system; however, where individuals cannot afford to pay for this responsibility, the state has to bear this duty in two respects. First, the State should adopt the necessary measures such as tariff schemes or subsidies to ensure that services are affordable; and second, implement practical framework and enabling environment to guarantee access to sanitation. [17]

Copious evidence suggest that privatisation stifles access to sanitation which in turn undermines the human rights and dignity of Ghanaians, especially those in poorer communities, who lack the financial backing to either build or pay for sanitation services. The right to sanitation is an enshrined human right obligation of governments in the international community, including Ghana, requiring that access is protected and promoted without citing arguments of economic, social or political expediencies. Although Ghana has finite resources like other states, it is obliged to allocate portion of its budgetary resources to ensure that access to sanitation and hygiene facilities are progressively realised in accordance with international and constitutional mandates. Similarly, the duty to protect access to sanitation extends to supervising the implementation of privatisation contracts without compromising the dignity and human rights of Ghanaians.


[1] < >Accessed December 13, 2021.

[2]Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (General Assembly Resolution 70/1, para. 5).

[3] UNICEF Ghana: “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” <> Accessed December 14, 2021.  

[4] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966) UNTS, Art. 2 (1)

[5] Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Caterina de Albuguerque, Report, Mission to Egypt, 50, UN. Doc.A/HRC/15/31/Add.3 (Jul. 5, 2010).

[6a] Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969),  Adopted May 23, 1969, entered into force on January 27, 1980, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1155,p 331.

[6b] The World Bank-FAQ-World Bank Group Support for Water and Sanitation Solutions< > Accessed December 14, 2021.

[7] Gould, C. and Brown, C. Sanitation Challenge for Ghana Dignified City Award (Stage 2), May 2020, IMC Worldwide.

[8] The Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice, UN, New York (1997) 3.

[9] A/HRC/45/10, “Progressive Realization of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, September 14- October 2, 2020.

[10] A/HRC/45/10, Ibid. see note 9, para. 35

[11) Ibid. see note 9, para. 37

[12] Ibid. see note 9, para. 39

[13] A/HRC/30/39, Report of the Special Rapporteur  on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation: Addendum, para. 25.

[14] The World Bank –FAQ – World Bank Group Support for Water and Sanitation Solutions <> Accessed December 14, 2021.

[15] The World Bank, Ibid.

[16] Winkler, T.I., The Human Right to Sanitation (2016), University of Pennsylvania Journal of International, Vol.37 (4) 1331-1406.

[17] Eide, A., Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Human Rights in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights- Textbook, 9, 24 (Asbjorn Eide, Catarina Krause and Allan Rosas eds, 2nd ed., 2001)