The Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) programme aims to end open defecation through facilitating activities that evoke a sense of shame, shock and disgust. The programme’s initial success and low-cost design has seen it become hegemonic in donor-supported rural sanitation. However, the theoretical basis of the use of shame has not been critically evaluated. Supporters claim that shame helps form and maintain social relationships, yet contemporary psychosocial literature highlights that it is a volatile and often harmful emotion, particularly in conditions of poverty. Using a case study of Cambodia, which rejected the coercive elements of shame in CLTS, we explore the problems of shame and limits of local ownership of development.