Cover image courtesy of Water.org.
–by Ty Johnson–
This assignment will focus in on Water.org, a global non-profit organization founded by Gary White and international movie star Matt Damon. Water.org made huge waves when they launched a partnership with Stella Artois in a commercial that debuted during the 2018 NFL Super Bowl. While the ads put a great deal of attention on African countries with lack of access to safe water, Water.org claims to provide fresh water to Asia and Latin America as well. For the sake of this class, I will be focusing my attention in on Ethiopia, as well as touching on Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Because of the nature of the organization and their partnership with the likes of Matt Damon, a Hollywood superstar that has somehow remained relatively unproblematic in the media, Water.org has received glowing reviews and ratings during its brief history.
For this assignment, I want to focus in on whether or not this high praise is deserved, especially when investigating the large difference between what the organization implies that it does through mass marketing and the work they actually do. Through initial research, it would seem to me that Water.org is different because they don’t just build wells or buy water for communities, but actually give them the ability to invest in the types of water resources that they specifically need, which would signal a huge change in the way that humanitarian work is structured in regards to these types of projects. My main argument is that while many water-based organizations in the past have been relatively unhelpful, the system in which Water.org provides clean water is revolutionary and would likely be extremely beneficial if applied across other humanitarian organizations and missions.
If you search for water-related charities online, you will likely come back with dozens, if not hundreds, of results, most of which claim to have the sole mission of providing clean drinking water to the world. When reading through these lists, it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other, apart from those that have celebrity support or frequent popular events such as music festivals like Bonnaroo, Van’s Warped Tour, Coachella, and the like. It’s easy to be skeptical about the number of organizations claiming to be providing clean water to “developing countries”, especially when we consider the idea of the “need to help”, and how so many organizations, religiously affiliated or not, launch humanitarian campaigns in foreign countries. You would think that at this point, with the number of active water-related organizations in operation, that there wouldn’t be anywhere in the world that still lacks clean water, but just like most humanitarian missions, this is sadly not the case. One organization, however, has taken center-stage amongst these water-mission charities since they rose to popularity just under two years ago, and that is Matt Damon’s Water.org.
To fully investigate the length to which Water.org has had an impact, we must first delve into their history, give an overview of water-related humanitarianism and the many problems that this area presents, and then finally delve into what makes Water.org so different. Water.org actually began much earlier than many people realize. Before they were known as “Matt Damon’s water charity”, they began in 1990 as WaterPartners International, and were founded by Executive Director Gary White, now co-founder of Water.org. While little information can be found on WaterPartners International, their tiny Wikipedia page explains that they aimed to provide safe drinking water “to more than 200 communities in eight countries – Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Guatemala, India, Kenya, and the Philippines” (WaterPartners). It was under Gary White and the WaterPartners International name that the idea of a “WaterCredit” was born, with the idea of using “microcredits” to fund water projects, rather than just building water wells in various communities (WaterPartners), but we’ll touch on this later.
Meanwhile, in 2006, Matt Damon informally launched H20 Africa, an awareness-raising organization with the mission of improving water conditions in Africa specifically (H20 Africa). While little was actually accomplished by the organization under this moniker, Damon and his associates made great strides to raise awareness about clean water initiatives in the Hollywood scene, so when WaterPartners International and H20 Africa merged to form Water.org a couple of years later in 2009 (WaterPartners), their combined success complimented each other nicely and sky-rocketed this new organization, co-founded by Damon and White, right into the spotlight. Water.org’s mission is simple: “We believe in water.” Furthermore, their mission statement plainly states the importance they place on providing clean water, rather than any sort of second-hand religious goal or awareness-raising. Their About Us page states that “Water.org is a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world. We want to make it safe, accessible, and cost-effective. We help get access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing, such as small loans. We give our everything every day to empower people in need with these life-changing resources – giving women hope, children health and families a bright future” (Water.org – About Us).
To date, Water.org claims to have changed over 25 million lives by providing access to safe water and water sanitation. Their website states that “785 million people — 1 in 9 — lack access to safe water at home. And 2 billion — 1 in 3 people — don’t have access to a toilet. The water crisis negatively impacts the health and livelihood of more than one-third of our global population. We exist to change this. For millions of women, children, and communities, access to safe water can turn problems into potential — unlocking education, economic opportunity and improved health,” claiming the slogan that “Access to water turns poverty into possibility” (Water.org – About Us).
Water.org operates “In 13 countries on four continents around the world,” including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines in Asia, and Brazil, Honduras, and Peru in Latin America (Water.org – Our Impact). In Ethiopia alone, Water.org claims that “62 million Ethiopians lack access to safe water and 97 million lack access to improved sanitation. Of those who lack access to improved sanitation, a staggering 23 million practice open defecation. In rural Ethiopia, a Water.org survey found that many women and children walk more than three hours to collect water, often from shallow wells or unprotected ponds they share with animals. Recurring droughts result in famine, food shortages, and water-related diseases, as people are forced to rely heavily on contaminated or stagnant water sources” (Water.org – Ethiopia). Water.org’s mission is simple, but its difference from other organizations make it a powerful competitor in the “water-related humanitarian work” market. Right on their homepage, Water.org explains the impact of the donations they receive: “One of the major barriers to safe water and sanitation is affordable financing. We address this barrier head-on through access to small, easily repayable loans. Every repaid loan creates a new opportunity for another family. By supporting Water.org, you are part of a solution that reaches more people, faster. Together with our 129 partners around the world, we’ve helped mobilize more than $2 billion in capital to support small loans that bring access to safe water and sanitation to millions of people in need. That’s how every $1 we put into WaterCredit creates $66 worth of impact” (Water.org – Home).
Water.org’s popularity sky-rocketed in 2018 after their wildly popular Stella Artois commercial during the 2018 Super Bowl (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc-NUcH8VOQ&feature=emb_title), in which they advertised the sale of Stella Artois chalices that would donate a portion of profits to Water.org. According to an article from NPR in 2018 written in reference to this Super Bowl Ad, Water.org’s difference from other water charities are what actually make it a strong alternative to traditional water-related humanitarianism: Despite its name, Water.org doesn’t actually provide water to people in the developing world. So your $3 won’t go directly toward, say, the delivery of jugs of water or the building of a well. To fulfill its mission, the nonprofit has set up a custom microlending system called WaterCredit. The group partners with financial institutions in developing countries to lend people small amounts of money so they can pay to get water. That might mean buying a faucet and hiring a contractor to tap into water supplies or buying containers to catch rainwater” (Gharib). So, in a nutshell, Water.org has set themselves apart by investing into communities financially with clean water in mind, but choosing to work with them to fulfill specific needs rather than for them without their input.
But before we delve too deeply into that idea, let’s pause for a moment and look at what a majority of water-based humanitarian projects are doing now. In the same NPR article, Gharib talks briefly about how many water-based humanitarian organizations have operated in Africa and other developing countries for decades: “For a long time, charities would try to fix a community’s water problem by digging wells and then leaving, she says. But the wells would often malfunction and become contaminated within a year, and they cost a lot to maintain. Today, wells are seen as an “old-fashioned approach that we now call the dig-and-ditch model,” Annie Feighery, co-founder of mWater says (Gharib). There are many reasons that this water well concept is immensely outdated, but one of the major reasons it just doesn’t work is that there is no system in place for maintenance of pipelines or for governmental reform in regard to providing universal water access.
In a 2011 article titled “Water Reforms in Kenya: A Historical Challenge to Ensure Universal Water Access and Meet the Millennium Development Goals”, author Daniel Sambu writes “Access to water is a key issue for developing countries. Kenya is one such country in which water scarcity and a poor water infrastructure compromise the health and standard of living of the population, and hinder its economic and social development. Despite a long history of attempts to reform the country’s water sector and improve water resources management, a large proportion of Kenya’s population is still not sufficiently served with water for consumptive, sanitation, and productive purposes… The study shows that the WSPs created to replace the government agencies in the provision of water services are not efficient and productive enough to meet the MDGs as envisioned by government plan. The implications and recommendations for water sector performance relate mainly to these WSPs. While the companies are still young and need time to mature, some challenges need to be addressed immediately. Many WSPs still lose more than 50% of water as unaccounted-for-water. This is mainly due to a dilapidated infrastructure most of which was developed during the colonial period. Most of the pipeline systems, especially in urban areas, need to be replaced before extending coverage to other areas. In the absence of more (e.g., private sector) funding, this is unlikely to happen” (Sambu). Author Laura Brunson talks similarly about safe drinking water in Africa in her dissertation titled “An Investigation of Sustainable Fluoride Water Treatment Technologies With a Focus on Ethiopia.” Brunson writes “Human consumption of unsafe drinking water from an unimproved source is a global issue affecting approximately 748 million people worldwide. While this number has been decreasing in recent years, an additional 1.2 billion people are estimated to lack access to water that is consistently free from health risks” (Brunson).
Essentially, even though millions of people still lack access to clean water, most organizations only seek to install water wells. This mission of continuing to install clean water wells rather than work differently for different communities shows a pretty severe disregard for the needs of individual and differing communities, especially when we take into account the reality that so many still lack access to clean water, and the other reality that there exists no real system for fixing or maintaining pipeline systems or well installations. The reality of most water-based humanitarian mission organizations is that they raise quite a bit of money to install wells, install them for cheap, and do nothing to maintain them, which unfortunately means that lots of fuss is raised over the construction of the wells, but no actual permanent good is being done for communities in dire need of clean water.
This is, of course, evidence of a large issue in regard to humanitarian aid of people in “developed” countries trying to “help” “developing” countries without actually asking them what they need. Fortunately, this is where Water.org is different. In March of 2018, CNBC writer Catherine Clifford wrote an article titled “Matt Damon: A million people a year die ‘completely needlessly’ from lack of clean water,” in which she notes that “To work to solve this crisis, Damon and White came together in 2009 to launch Water.org, a non-profit that works to provide access to clean drinking water in 13 countries around the world: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Asia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Brazil, Honduras and Peru. Water.org helps people gain access to clean water and sanitation by teaching, training and guiding local micro-finance institutions to make loans for providing access to clean water and sanitation… In 2016, Damon and White launched an impact investment fund to provide capital to these microfinance institutions they were educating with Water.org. In 2017, the impact investment management arm of Water.org became a separate nonprofit, WaterEquity. Currently, WaterEquity is raising money for a $50 million fund, seeded by companies, institutional investors, foundations and wealthy individuals… The funds take the money, invest it through these local microfinance organizations and then return the principal with the interest to the lender. ‘We take those funds and invest them in enterprises that serve the poor in terms of their water and sanitation needs,’ says White. ‘The basic math on it is that every million that comes into the fund, over the seven-year life, 100,000 people get access to water or sanitation…. It is a truly sustainable and scalable way to connect impact investors all the way down to poor women at the household level so that they can solve this problem.’ Taken together, Water.org and WaterEquity have given access to clean water or sanitation to more than 10 million individuals around the globe. Given a chance, people are able to take the access to water and really turn their lives around, benefiting themselves and their families.” (Clifford).
In a nutshell, Water.org is different because they go into communities, speak with them, and determine their needs alongside them, then invest financially into what those specific water-based needs are, rather than just going into areas that the organization themselves determines are in need and making decisions for them. In this way, the people that need help are determining the kinds of help they receive, rather than the helpers making all the decisions for them. Barbara Booth from CNBC writes “Water.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White say conversations with investors about social responsibility are getting easier. The numbers prove it: Its WaterEquity impact fund — the first-ever impact investment manager with an exclusive focus on ending the global water crisis — has grown to $60 million since it was created in 2017, and the charity has provided more than 16 million people throughout India, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines with access to safe water and sanitation. One of the major barriers to safe water and sanitation is affordable financing. Water.org addresses the barrier through access to small, easily repayable loans. According to Damon, it has provided 3 million loans that pay back at 99 percent. ‘Our model is undeniable now,’ he said Thursday in an interview with CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box’ at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Within three years of its launch in 2009, the organization had already reached its first million people with clean water, said Damon. ‘We’re at 16 million now, so we are hitting a million a quarter now,’ he said. Since the organization started, White has seen a real change. ‘A lot more corporations and brands are talking about working in social impact investing,’ he said. “Our first visit here, we had the seed of an idea, like, ’Well, we think we can do this social impact fund and help get water to millions of people, and we came back two years later and we had launched it. And now we came back this year and have $60 million of assets under management.’ He added: ‘What’s exciting is that this matters to consumers. The difference between now and four years ago is you hear these companies talking about all this social responsibility. They’re not just saying it; their consumers are pushing them in this direction’” (Booth).
After all is said and done, the work that Matt Damon is doing through Water.org is revolutionary, because it shows that just caring enough about communities to invest financially in their specific needs, rather than launching massive, loud PR campaigns to bring attention to a person or organization, can make a real and lasting impact for a group in need. Matt Damon’s work to invest long-term in clean water initiatives around the globe, rather than just trying to build as many water wells as possible, has proven to be immensely positive and powerful throughout the continents that they seek to help, and the example that they set is a powerful example of what intentional investing can do to help people in need.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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