Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The real future of clean water, D. Bornstein

Nice piece about the limitations of traditional philanthropy models to expand sustainable access to water supply services.

The Real Future of Clean Water

What would it take to ensure that everyone in the world had access to clean water? I’m prompted to ask this question in response to a recent New York Times Magazine article, which focused on Charity: Water, an organization that has reportedly raised $100 million to finance water projects in the developing world, making it the largest water-focused nonprofit in the United States.

The message that wealthy donors can solve the world’s water crisis is misleading.

Charity: Water has done an important job raising public awareness about the world’s water crisis and demonstrated remarkable fundraising ability — engaging both “micro-philanthropists” and wealthy entrepreneurs. The organization’s fundraising is guided by the imperative of giving its donors a satisfying experience. However, to do this, Charity: Water has had to simplify the problem and narrow in on one piece of the solution — the piece with the most potential to deliver that experience: individualized water projects, like wells or purification systems, that can be photographed, located on Google Maps, and commemorated with plaques featuring donors’ names. To get the work done, the organization identifies partner organizations across the developing world with track records of delivering results, and provides flexible funding to meet local needs.

Charity: Water aims to show through the growth of its philanthropic work that the world’s water crisis is solvable. The message it effectively conveys is: if enough affluent people in the West were generous enough to pay for water projects in poor countries, we could fix the problem. This message is misleading — and it doesn’t serve the interests of the organization’s donors, other water organizations, or people who are beyond the reach of Charity: Water.

Let’s put this problem in perspective. The World Health Organization has estimated that it would require investments totaling $535 billion between 2011 and 2015 to provide universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This problem cannot be solved by scaling philanthropy. It’s like using an “adopt-a-highway” approach to solve the world’s transportation problems. To fix this problem, governments and businesses must take the lead...

Read the full piece here.