Feb 3, 2011

Rowan Doesn't Want to Help. Or Does He?

I met Rowan Barber at the Kelvin Grove Urban Village this morning. I recognised him from the description he'd emailed - he'd be wearing a baby girl strapped to his chest, a Tigger cap, and a "Make Poverty History" t-shirt, ironically.

"Why ironically?" I asked, after we exchanged pleasantries.

"Because, well, I'm scamming money out of you," he grinned nervously.

After my initial Getting Heavy on the Levy article, fears abounded both in the comments section and on Twitter/Facebook that I'd wind up shelling out hundreds to greedy anti-levy countrymen. But I had all the confidence in the world that no one would front up. After all, is $25 to $250 in cash REALLY worth putting yourself out there for social media humiliation?

So imagine my surprise when I received an email from Rowan, including a scan of his most recent tax assessment. He said he was prepared to pose for the photo, was prepared to adopt a smug look, and prepared to sign it with "That's right - I don't want to help" - in return for his levy contribution of $72.

I couldn't believe it. Surely not?

And then, at the end of the email, this line:
Would you mind terribly if I subsequently donated the $72 to the World Toilet Organisation?
I paused.

I thought about it.

Then I sat back in my chair and began applauding. Rowan - the canny, rat-cunning bastard - cleverly twisted my own post around, and in doing so, provided the most perfectly wonderful end to this story.

After discovering Rowan lives just a suburb away from me, I insisted we meet up. After realising neither of us drink coffee, we eschewed the local cafe with its QUT university types in favour of a green wooden table in the nearby park.

Rowan released his 17-month-old daughter Amelia from her harness, and she turned to face me, all big blue eyes, pink lips and sandy hair. "She's small for her age," said Rowan. "My wife and I are trying to feed her up."

Turns out Rowan is an engineer, who's left the profession temporarily to be a part-time stay-at-home Dad. It also turns out that he doesn't have a problem with the flood levy.

"To be honest, it's probably not enough," he said.

"But the flood levy's going to build infrastructure for us in a developed world, and I was just going through scenarios of places who don't have the infrastructure in the first place, or places that couldn't handle the devastation that we're experiencing if these kinds of tragedies hit them."

So Rowan thought outside the box, and decided to use my offer of levy cashbacks for good.

Rowan's passion for global sanitation issues is obvious during our chat. He tells me that 2.6 billion people don't have access to designated toilets. It's a huge health issue, because "toilet pits" used in many countries are breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases. And it poses terrible social problems for women, particularly in more conservative countries. Women will avoid ablutions during the day, then sneak out at night, risking attack. And girls often drop out of school after puberty hits, because there is nowhere safe for them to change sanitary pads.

The humble toilet. The bog, the dunny, the thunderbox, the throne, the crapper, the john, the head, the WC, the loo. Such a simple, functional device - and probably one of the most important ever invented.

And yet, Rowan says the need for better toilet systems is hard to promote because it's not glamourous.

"People want to see photographs of a water pump, and see happy kids drinking clean water. Nobody wants to get photographed with a toilet."

The World Toilet Organisation was founded in Singapore in 2001 to improve toilet facilities in that small nation. It's since expanded, and you can find out more about their work at their website. Rowan says their focus is not so much about physically building toilets, but improving access to sanitation supplies and training.

And it is for all this that Rowan, Brisbane dad, was willing to step up and publicly name himself. I received many comments from anti-levy people - but almost all were from "Anonymous". They were happy to criticise, but did it under the cloak of anonymity.

I doubt any of them would have had the brains to do what Rowan Barber did: which is think about how he could use the opportunity to create another positive humanitarian message, and stand up.

Which is why I happily donated $72 to the World Toilet Organisation, and happily post this photograph:

I'm not going to tell anyone reading to donate to the World Toilet Organisation. After all, we have disasters of our own aplenty here at home; plus of course there's that levy money to consider.

But if you are looking for a charity to support, it's one worth investigating.

The next World Water Day is 22 March, followed later on 19 November by World Toilet Day. You can bet I'll be doing follow up posts on the WTO. Not because of the good work they do, or the children and women they help.

I'll post it because Rowan Barber is a bloody champion.

Click here to listen to my interview with Rowan. It's a bit windy, but you can hear his adorable daughter in the background.

Just some technicalities: donations to the World Toilet Organisation are NOT currently tax deductible in Australia. I donated the $72 online; but I will NOT be claiming any benefit through tax. Rowan and I scrambled in our wallets for the cash to display in the picture.


  1. Well done both of you. Minor point of confusion - is the wind in the background from his daughter? If so they HAVE to stop trying to feed her up on beans.

  2. "My wife and I are trying to feed her up."
    "It's a bit windy, but you can hear his adorable daughter in the background."

    Makes me want to agree with Greybeard. Beans.

    The rest of the blog was great. Thinking people sharing thoughts. Who would have thought?

  3. Wonderful. The whole exercise came up with a marvellous result. You've aced it here.

  4. Brilliant and bravo to both of you. I need to come here more often to restore faith in human-kind (and I should stop reading comments on news.com.au stories... shudder).

  5. very well done Rowan. Started from a fantastic idea in the first place. Downright inspiring!

  6. I have tears streaming from my eyes!! I am so very pleased that there are intelligent awesome people in this city, nay world, like Rowan.

    And like you GC, for proving, along with the "Anonymouses", what we all knew would happen from the Tony Abbott Supporter end of things...

  7. Hahahaha, my birthday is world toilet day :)

    Well done Rowan!

  8. Dear Ysambart,

    As it turns out, your birthday is World Water Day.


    How shall we celebrate it?

    I would also appreciate your suggestions and assistance for celebrations of World Toilet Day on 19 November 2011

    This is what I did in 2010: http://bit.ly/cs84Q2

  9. Gold. What a champion.


  11. This gave me a Happy. Bless x

  12. Beaten at your own game :) Good work Rowan!

  13. So it turns out it's not what people say about you, it's about what you do that counts. Hooray!

  14. I had no idea about the World Toilet Organisation until this blog: now I'll be dontating to them as well as the flood levy (which I was always more than happy to contribute to).

  15. Champion effort. =D

  16. Ah Rowan is sheer genius and its a great cause!

  17. Wonderful! And of course, we all know the founder of the WTO is our very own Jack Sim right (at least, we get a lot of his emails) http://www.worldtoilet.org/aboutus3.asp

  18. A few years ago I read that when a worldwide cohort of physicians was polled about what they thought the most important medical improvement of the 19th/20th centuries was, clean water and sanitation was #1. I didn't donate to the Premier's flood appeal because I figured I did more good out at Goodna helping get rid of sodden gyprock and cleaning walls/floors/ceilings that had been covered in mud and sewerage (now I know why to sandbag the loo!).
    I also knew that there'd be more governmental activity to make sure that the burden was shared. That's what they're good for, right?

    Reckon I still need to donate to the W.Toilet.Org though.

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