“The biggest challenge our organization has is overcoming conventional wisdom that the poor are monolithic and have to be provided for through charity as opposed to changing the system,” says Water.org CEO Gary White.
Water.org, an organization focused on the water and sanitation problems in the developing world, has transformed hundreds of communities in Africa, South Asia, and Central America by providing access to safe water and sanitation since its inception.
The organization’s roots date back to 1990, when White formed WaterPartners International. WaterPartners merged with Matt Damon’s H2O Africa in July 2009, resulting in the launch of
Water.org. Working with local partners to deliver innovative solutions for long-term success, Water.org’s microfinance-based WaterCredit Initiative is pioneering sustainable giving in the sector.
“You cannot solve poverty without first solving water and sanitation”
White cites his dual passions for social justice and engineering as the impetus behind WaterPartners International. As for the story behind the story, the “non-engineer” side of him revealed that it was an undergraduate trip to Guatemala and then to the slums of its capital, Guatemala City, that proved the real tipping point. While there, he saw a little girl collecting water from contaminated drums, and watched her then walk away along lanes filled with sewage. The image stayed with him.
“The fact that this is what was going on a two-hour plane ride from Los Angeles just struck me as wrong,” he recalls.
He then discovered that the poor were paying 10 to 15 times the actual cost of water because they didn’t have a connection to a utility. Furthermore, he learned that many people were paying up to 25 percent of their income to buy water—some resorting to loan sharks who charged up to 125 percent interest. “We decided that if we could get them loans at an affordable rate, they could then build connections to the utility and that they could not only solve their problem and become self-sufficient, but they could even develop a business doing so, where they could support themselves.”
In Damon, White found a natural partner who—despite his Hollywood notoriety—was informed and dedicated to the cause.“We brought the technology wonk, boots on the ground, get-it-done aspect and Matt, along with his fierce dedication and ‘all-in’ commitment to the project, brought his high-level platform and access to more people,” says White. “In addition, Matt is a great storyteller and has a way to tell a compelling story about giving loans versus giving straight charity and talking about the difference between a $100 microfinance loan versus a $100 donation.”
The collaboration between White and Damon has worked out so successfully that Water.org has now developed a global advocacy plans to spread the word about how it’s possible to have the poor invest in themselves as customers. They have gone well beyond what they’re doing for the populations they serve to show and teach other institutions serving the poor, how they can do the same thing.
“You cannot solve poverty without first solving water and sanitation,” says Damon.
To date, Water.org has assisted more than 3 million people with water and/or sanitation problems. “And because of the WaterCredit (or microfinance) approach we’ve added an additional 1 million to the prior 2 million just in the last year,” White adds with noticeable enthusiasm.
One of the things that keeps White so committed, he says, is being able to live in the intersection between his greatest passion and the world’s greatest need.
What could be better than that?