Cover image courtesy of Young Life Africa
–by Anne Coffey and Zach Schuermann–
Water is a necessity for all of humanity. But in areas lacking clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa, populations are forced to consume unsafe water, resulting in disease, impaired economic development, and loss of life. This article examines the effectiveness of charity:water’s efforts to end the clean water scarcity crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa. Charity:water, founded in 2006, is a pioneer in their well-building projects and should be applauded for several of its initiatives, including its work to involve community members in well projects and its devotion to the transparency of project implementation. However, charity: water’s projects introduce reliance on wells which are often unsupported by local governments, effectively allowing continued misallocation of resources and requiring external support to ensure sustainable operation. Its reports to the public fail to provide information on the effectiveness of its wells, including waterborne-disease rates, the average required travel time to water sources, and the current number of functioning well projects. Instead, charity:water’s branding often focuses on its “100% model,” a convoluted approach to claiming that 100% of public donations go to on-the-ground efforts.
Founded in 2006 by Scott Harrison, Charity: Water (stylized ‘charity: water’) seeks to provide access to clean water for people living in developing countries. The company’s narrative is nearly always preceded by founder Scott Harrison’s story of his career as a nightclub promoter turned benevolent humanitarian. This story serves to contextualize charity: water’s inception; but despite small beginnings, charity: water has found its way into the limelight as one of Silicon Valley’s favorite charities.
Charity: water’s operation has grown immensely in the past 12 years, with activity in 26 countries, providing water for over 8.4 million people. Its recent achievement of reaching large numbers of people without clean water underscores the perceived success of its efforts–and its continuing funding and growth. The company currently funds nearly 30,000 water projects in developing countries, with roughly half operating in sub-Saharan Africa. However laudable its efforts, this article analyzes the underlying assumptions governing charity: water’s operation and both applauds its efforts toward transparency and community involvement while challenging its approach as a private clean water provider, the efficacy of its data collection, it’s misleading ‘100% model’, and its local partnership process.
Validity of Provisioning Water Infrastructure
Charity: water’s efforts to provide access to clean water are similar to the idea of establishing a universal basic income in an effort to help impoverished individuals. Unlike organizations seeking to eradicate poverty, however, charity: water’s mission is much less ambiguous: there is little room to argue the lower-bound on a human’s need for water.
According to the CDC, there are currently 780 million people living without access to clean water. The scale of the problem is underscored by the sheer volume of people affected; the implications of solving the water crisis would thus be felt by a vast number of people. Such implications are enumerated by charity: water’s website as decreasing the time required to retrieve water, mitigating health risks associated with consuming dirty water, furthering education by keeping children in school, and empowering women through removing their need to facilitate water collection. The analysis of whether or not providing free, clean water to populations in sub-Saharan Africa is the most effective form of relief for those in need is out of the scope of this article; although unlike the recent advent of straight-cash donations and other forms of direct relief reliant on simply giving to local individuals, charity: water has decided that its intervention to provision wells and similar tools is necessary and otherwise unavailable to many communities in which it operates, as evidenced by its current practices. One can argue that this scenario is more probable than not, due to the cost and specialization of equipment required to implement many different kinds of water infrastructure.
Charity: water as a Private Water Provider
As with many humanitarian efforts, charity: water’s entire operation rests on the assumption that its approach (provisioning wells and similar infrastructure) is the best path to completing its mission: “bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.” Its mission is specific and clear, and measurable (discussed later). Charity: water’s approach is infrastructure-based, as it seeks to act as a ‘solution-agnostic’ water provider, that is, to provide water using any infrastructural solution, whether that is wells, piping, or purification. Before addressing many of the specific practices of charity: water, one must consider its efforts in the context of helping developing nations in Africa.
Charity: water addresses the largest segment of populations in need in sub-Saharan Africa: rural populations. According to its website and public documentation, charity: water is primarily concerned with bringing clean water to rural communities in developing countries to solve problems relating to time, health, education, and women’s empowerment. An obvious alternative to its international intervention is simply funding local governments such that the governments can implement state-supported infrastructure. This is ideologically different than charity: water’s approach, as the company does not fund full-scale municipal systems, as it stated in a recent interview that such projects are outside of the company’s scope. Unfortunately, “in developed and developing countries alike, the public sector has underperformed when it comes to providing water to all its citizens.” In many cases, “states’ elite‐driven policy planning often further exacerbates unequal water access and its implications.”
This is not to say that privatization is without problems. Much of the criticism surrounding the privatization of water is centered on the commodification of water as a result of such privatization, and the subsequent cost imposed on consumers. This is not the case for charity: water, as its charity provides the water at no cost, and as such, water is much closer to a human right than a commodity. There is evidence from South Africa’s Free Basic Water Policy that the free water allowance actually has little effect on consumption where available. One collateral effect from the intervention of charity: water in African countries is the removal of the need for governments to address water needs of many of the marginalized communities, effectively further permitting the misallocation of resources in many states. A recent study on the privatization of water delivery found that “privatization of water delivery services has become a global trend as states seek ways to shift both political and economic costs to private actors.” The same study concluded that public sector water infrastructure “in developed and developing countries alike, …has underperformed when it comes to providing water to all its citizens, and several common factors have prompted policy changes in favor of privatization.” Charity: water operates under the fundamental assumption that private water infrastructure for rural communities is the most effective way to solve the water crisis. This might be the case, but it is currently nothing more than an untested hypothesis.
The Rising Cost of Data
The data-driven analysis of wells provisioned by charity: water was a response to the criticism of the sustainability and long-term success of its wells. The active response of the company shows its ability to learn from mistakes, although the data collection provides another example of a possible inefficiency in charity: water’s mission. If the wells were only functional for a limited amount of time or if their cost of maintenance was exorbitant, it is likely that the money invested in implementing unreliable and insufficient wells would be of much better use simply being donated to local governments to facilitate their own water infrastructure. After winning a $5 million Global Impact Award from Google in 2012, charity: water pursued installing sensors and creating data transmission support for many of its wells in sub-Saharan Africa. To date, there are thousands of wells reporting to the internet for remote monitoring. The success in monitoring the wells aids in validating their use and sustainability. Unfortunately, the implementation of a large-scale data acquisition platform relies on multi-million dollar investment in bringing technology such as internet connectivity and specialized sensors to remote areas in Africa. Such a large investment to monitor and support water systems in rural Africa remotely (namely from the United States) could be entirely unnecessary if the water systems were locally implemented and supported in the first place. To illustrate, one can entertain the idea of the following counterexample: what if the wells were instead sanctioned by local governments and communities and were monitored by their respective communities? The immense investment in technology could have been directed to the local agencies running the wells and provided more money to invest in water systems directly, instead of supporting infrastructure – thereby furthering the mission of providing clean water to those in need.
Even if the necessity of monitoring infrastructure was validated, the data currently collected leaves gaps in measuring charity: water’s success in completing its stated goals, namely: decreasing the time required to retrieve water, mitigating health risks associated with consuming dirty water, furthering education by keeping children in school, and empowering women. Despite this, the data is central to the narrative that charity: water utilizes as a major fundraising tool. Again, in an attempt to fill such gaps, charity: water introduced a program known as MAPS in 2017. The program introduced 3,000+ surveys to provide more monitoring of charity: water’s efforts and is planned to expand in 2018. Yet, it begs the question: is the allocation of resources for more monitoring infrastructure better than simply attempting to provide local agencies with the same resources for direct support?
Charity: Water’s 100% Model
One of charity: water’s essential marketing strategies is the touting of its “100% model.” This model essentially allocates its donations into two different pools: The Spring and The Well. The Spring, which funds only the clean water projects, is comprised of all “public donations,” meaning that if one was to donate through charity: water’s website, the donation would go directly to The Spring. Of course, charity: water has other costs besides just those that go directly into its projects, such as rent, employee salaries and benefits, travel, and supplies. These costs are covered by what charity: water refers to as “The Well,” which is funded by a small group of private donors. In addition to The Well, certain companies and foundations also contribute to staff salaries and overhead costs by donating to charity: water through corporate gifts, percentages of sales, and campaigns.
By pulling overhead costs only from “The Well” and funding projects through “The Spring,” charity: water is able to claim that all publicly donated dollars go directly toward supplying clean water to someone in need through its clean water projects. Claiming that all donated funds go toward projects is not necessarily a new idea for nonprofits. It’s not unusual for a nonprofit to say that all donations given during a certain time period or given in support of a certain project will only go toward project costs. However, charity: water differs significantly from other nonprofits in that the 100% model is its modus operandi. By functioning under this model at all times, charity: water avoids mentioning how much it actually spends on overhead costs.
Though charity: water describes The Spring and The Well in detail on its website, nowhere does it note the size of either account. There is, therefore, no easy way to determine how much charity: water spends on overhead, or more importantly, what percentage of overall donations go toward overhead. Such marketing is deceiving to donors, as charity: water’s model could be taken as meaning that no donated funds go toward operating expenses. In the grand scheme of things, it does not necessarily matter whose dollars are going toward what costs. If The Well comprises 25% of overall funds, 75% of donations go toward water project expenses. If charity: water was to combine The Spring and The Well into one bank account, it would likely still spend 25% of funds on overhead costs and 75% on project costs. The 100% model makes charity: water no more or less efficient. Rather, by simply structuring its accounts in a specific way, this model is able to imply that charity: water is a highly efficient nonprofit with little to no overhead. This is, of course, unless one looks into its Form 990s to research its total expenses, which a typical donor is unlikely to do.
Charity: water’s 990s and financial reports show that it spends between 23% and 31% on operating costs (the variance is due to discrepancies in what is reported as an operating expense and the account from which the funds are taken). Those operating costs are not inappropriate in and of themselves. Overhead costs are necessary for the success of almost all businesses and nonprofits. What does seem to be inappropriate is the way in which these costs are disguised. Additionally, it is unclear what exactly the difference is in public and private donors or donations. It is not that one is anonymous and the other is not, or that one person or group is donating to a public charity and one to a private foundation; the funds are going to the same entity. Charity: water seems to justify referring to The Well donors as “private” because its website only allows visitors to donate to “The Spring.”
While the 100% model is harmful to donors in that their dollars may be going to a nonprofit organization that is less efficient than they think, the model poses a larger issue for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Charity: water markets its 100% model aggressively. It is splashed across its website and often mentioned on its social media pages (charity: water has over 1.3 million Twitter followers and 400 thousand Instagram followers). This may lead its donors and followers to believe that all nonprofits should be able to operate without any administrative costs, which is completely infeasible. The concern is that other nonprofits may miss out on donations when potential donors, in an effort to be responsible, find that a sizable amount of donations for that nonprofit go toward overhead costs. Overhead costs are intrinsic to nonprofits’ operations and should be expected by donors. However, the 100% model leads the public to believe otherwise.
In an effort to meet demands for transparency and low overhead costs, nonprofits may take measures that are harmful to themselves and its communities. Nonprofits may underpay their staff or maintain a staff size that is too small to fit its needs in order to cut administrative costs. Such cost-cutting measures may lead to financial weakness and inefficiency, making it even more difficult to secure donations. This, in turn, could result in nonprofits offering fewer or lower quality services. The 100% model is, therefore, not only deceptive towards its donors, but it may also negatively impact the entirety of the nonprofit sector.
Local Community Involvement
The successful creation of a sustainable water source is highly dependent on the way in which a community is involved in the development and maintenance of the project. Critical factors include affordability, perceived ownership, community education, and the ongoing support of local management bodies. According to Harvey and Reed, community management (which may include such responsibilities as participatory planning, capacity building, and technical assistance) is not necessary for the success of a well and should not be required of the communities. Heavy community participation, however, is vital for project sustainability. Charity: water acknowledges that it must turn to local entities to effect long-term change for local communities in an impactful manner. To accomplish this, charity: water pairs with 16 different on-the-ground organizations. Partnering organizations include such nonprofits as The International Rescue Committee, World Vision, and Nepal Water for Health. These organizations, according to charity: water, are community-centered with a “deep knowledge of water project implementation.” Charity: water notes that it vets them carefully, spending weeks analyzing their practices in the field, as well as their financial reporting. However, GiveWell, a nonprofit devoted to assessing the effectiveness of other nonprofit organizations, was not satisfied with charity: water’s partner selection process. In GiveWell’s official report on charity: water, they stated that “charity: water focuses on ensuring that projects are legitimate (e.g., avoiding fraud, ensuring that grant funds were spent as approved to construct the water projects listed by charity: water) rather than attempting to assess and compare the potential for impact across different projects.”
Careful selection of partners is vital because partners are responsible for a large bulk of the work regarding both the wells and the communities in which they are placed. Charity: water sticks to raising awareness and funds for its projects, while its partners take on the drilling of the wells, the protection of the springs, and the mobilization of the local communities. Charity: water’s website explains that it expects partner organizations to educate communities on sanitary and hygienic practices, as well as “work closely with local communities, leaders, governments, mechanics, and suppliers to accomplish lasting change.” It is unclear how closely charity: water manages its success in doing so, if at all. Though charity: water’s website does state that it speaks with partner organizations daily to monitor progress and discuss issues that have arisen.
One potential issue with leaving all community engagement to partner organizations is that there is no standardization in the level of involvement. This may allow the local organizations to be more effective, as they likely have a better understanding of the correct channels through which to impact a community than charity: water does. However, it may also mean that charity: water is much more effective in certain communities than it is others. Additionally, local partners may interact with their respective communities in a way that does not necessarily reflect the values of charity: water. For example, one of its partners is Clear Cambodia, which is a faith-based NGO. This is problematic, as donors give to charity: water as a whole. They do not select which partner organizations receives their dollars, meaning that some donors who do not wish to endorse certain religions or evangelization as a whole may inadvertently be doing so. Considering how much work is done at the local level by charity: water’s partners, this also raises the question of why one should give to charity: water as opposed to giving directly to the local groups. While charity: water should be applauded for its efforts to increase the agency of local communities, further consideration should be given to whether giving directly to on-the-ground groups would be more effective, as it would likely increase the efficiency and influence of the local nonprofits, communities, and governments.
Charity: water has improved the lives of over one million people by providing them with increased access to clean water, which in turn could improve education levels, income, and health throughout the impacted communities. Its initiative to radically decrease the number of those without access to this basic commodity has been made possible through the utilization of groundwater, which is proven to be one of the most effective means by which to increase access to safe water. In doing so, it has maintained a level of transparency higher than is typical in the nonprofit sector, an effort for which it should be acknowledged. However, its transparency in overhead costs is lacking, as donors may be deceived by its highly advertised “100% model.” Additionally, while its initiative to improve data collection for its well is laudable, it introduces possible inefficiencies to their solutions. To their credit, charity: water has acknowledged that it is neither qualified nor equipped to complete the projects and mobilize communities around the idea of hygienic practices and well sustainability. Instead, it has turned to local and on-the-ground nonprofits in hopes that they will accomplish this work in tandem with local governments and communities. However, questions still surround the process by which these groups are selected and monitored, as well as the efficacy of donating to them through charity: water. Further consideration should also be given to underlying assumptions that water privatization is the most effective method for increasing water access, particularly in rural communities. Its work promotes a noble mission, although their efforts still operate under various unchallenged assumptions and untested methodologies.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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