Latest in DIY foreign aid: Plumbers Without Borders?

I figured this must be some kind of joke when I first heard about it.

But no.

It’s not a joke. It’s also not yet a legally recognized charitable organization, which gives me pause, and may just be another example of a humanitarian solution in search of a problem. We’ll return to that in a moment, after the following news report:

Here is Seattle’s KING TV’s story on some locals launching a new organization they are calling “Plumbers Without Borders

Okay, let’s first assume these folks who are starting Plumbers Without Borders, Domenico and Carmela DiGregorio of West Seattle, mean well.

Here’s their website, which is kinda clunky and disorganized. But hey, they’re plumbers — not web designers.

Still, if you click on their donate button, it goes to some other organization in New York City called charity:water. Huh? Not sure what’s the connection here. That remains unexplained. Maybe they should hold off soliciting donations until they are legally recognized as a charitable organization and can accept them for their own organization, not some guy in NYC.

(Note to the Plumbers: That guy on the video at charity:water is a little irritating … partly because I don’t know why he’s linked to your site. And partly because he reminds me of that guy on TV who sells the ShamWow rag thing).

If you click through some other links at the Plumbers Without Borders website, you end up with another colleague and fellow border-less plumber named Harry Farrel in Canada who apparently can’t quite figure out if he is doing this to advertise his plumbing services at Price-Rite Plumbing or advocating for a humanitarian cause.

All this confused messaging may be due to the fact that this is a small DIY do-gooder operation just getting started. I’ve written before about the problems of DIY foreign aid, of people thinking a well-intended idea is good enough. Here’s another, even less charitable, piece by David Algoso at Foreign Policy mag.

But really the main problem is the average person can’t tell what’s going on here with Plumbers Without Borders. And without legal certification by the Secretary of State, we can’t even know if this is a bonafide charitable organization dedicated to helping the poor — or something else.

On the broader level:

A much bigger problem with the whole Plumbers-Without-Borders idea is that water and sanitation problems are usually the result of a breakdown (or lack) of a public utility system, the local municipality’s water supply or sewage system. If not due to disaster, these are large-scale failures of governance and basic infrastructure that actually can’t be solved by some guy with low-slung Carhartt pants coming in to reconnect a P-trap.

But hey Dominico and Carmela, you don’t need to don’t listen to me. My plumbing skills are crap.

My primary beef here is with KING TV anyway.

Given the explosion of do-gooder organizations in this region (along with a history of some organizations actually doing more good for themselves than for the needy), we in the media need to do a better job of vetting these organizations before publicizing them. Why not at least wait until they are a legal charity?

Even better, check with all the hundreds of other organizations working on the problem of water and sanitation in poor countries to see if this is actually an effective, strategic way to help people — as opposed to just a nice idea.

Okay, I didn’t do that before complaining. But then again, I’m not the region’s leading TV news station.

I hope Plumbers Without Borders proves to be a legitimate and well-thought-out endeavor launched by local craftsman seeking to apply their skills (plumbing, I know from painful experience, is indeed an art form) to help the poor and needy.

But before we get all excited and help them with their fund-raising, let’s wait until organizations like Plumbers Without Borders are established as legal charities and have websites that don’t look like they got thrown up yesterday.

Sorry if it seems like I’m picking on the plumbers. But this is a good example that these kind of charitable endeavors are growing in popularity here, and are in a sense becoming a local industry, which requires more transparency and accountability before we jump to heralding the next Mercy Corps or World Vision.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Kathleen732

    Well said Tom. Their donation page on charity:water makes me especially nervous since they say that $20 will provide one person with clean water for 20 years. Really? The $20 price tag is quoted throughout the charity:water website, but where did the 20 year timeframe come from? With that said, access to safe water and sanitation is essential for improved health, I’m just not sure if PWOB is well enough established to solicit donations yet.
    Thanks,
    Kathleen

  • http://twitter.com/viewfromthecave Tom Murphy

    Kathleen, I do have to offer a slight defense of charity:water who recently backed away from the $20 claim (read it here: http://www.charitywater.org/blog/20-dollars-20-years/ ).

    Tom, I think you are largely right. However, I am not opposed to the idea of a PWB forming as a way to provide domestic services. What if they could be encouraged to do pro-bono plumbing here in the US for those who cannot afford the fix? That would be beneficial to them since it can improve business relationships and provide a service which more effectively and cheaply meets an immediate need.

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the clarification and thoughts. To be clear, I’m not at all opposed to the PWOB folks offering their skills to help the poor, here or abroad. But they are not yet established as a legal entity and have no clearly stated mission statement or business plan. So far as I can tell, they are right now just an idea with a website.

      Meanwhile, there are many established organizations working on water and sanitation issues in the developing world which have clear mission statements, strategies and track records. This is an important & complex problem that deserves serious coverage by the media. Stories that imply all that’s needed are good intentions can actually do harm.

      I wish PWOB well. But we are entering a new era, I hope, in which these humanitarian efforts must be held to the same rigorous standards of accountability and performance as any business or government initiative. Without this, we are just flushing money and good will down the drain.

      Cheers

      • http://twitter.com/viewfromthecave Tom Murphy

        Not really disagreeing with you Tom, I share the exact same sentiments. My attempt was to try to come up with a way for them to be more effective. However, there might already exist structures which support what I suggested.

        In the end, I think we are on the same page. Try first to work with organizations who have experience and already address what you want to do, then start to consider alternatives if there is something which is needed and not currently being offered. Chances are, there is already someone who working on it.

        Thanks for the response!

  • Marla Smith-Nilson

    I hate to pick on the well-meaning individuals of Plumbers without Borders, because it’s really the institutional funding that’s funding the most work, and creating the most failed projects. However, I’ve been working in this field for 20 years now (and Tom did a blog on the organization where I work, Water 1st, on Tuesday), and what has been consistent over this period is that people in the developed world – individuals and institutions – tend to think the world water crisis is a problem that just needs a technological solution. It’s not. The technical piece is easily handled by local engineers, contractors, and skilled laborers (who are happy for the employment).

    The most complicated piece of these projects, the reason that it is estimated that 50%, HALF, of water projects fail in developing nations after only two to five years, is that communities are not equipped to manage the systems on their own. Therefore, in the work that we support, the majority of the effort is not in providing the technical solution, it is in building the capacity of communities to act as their own water utility. They learn to read a water meter, collect a water bill in a transparent manner (so that other community members trust that their water bill is going into the community account and not an individual’s pocket), provide for routine operations and maintenance of the water system, and build up a savings for future system expansion and upgrade. Where are the Plumbers without Borders people going to be when the bearing on a Mark II hand-pump needs to be replaced or a PVC pipe breaks in Honduras? It makes a lot more sense if a local plumber is paid to make these repairs rather than flying in a foreigner who likely doesn’t even know where to buy spare parts.

    Not knowing the Plumbers without Borders people, I would take a guess that they are great people, and great plumbers who I would want to hire for the next plumbing issue in my home, but that they wouldn’t have a clue how to set up a water utility in rural Ethiopia. In fact, most people do not have these kinds of specialized skills. That’s why it’s my belief that if we truly want to solve the world’s water and sanitation crisis permanently, we need to invest in local professionals who have a proven track record for helping build the capacity of communities to solve their own water and sanitation problems.

    Well-meaning isn’t good enough. If we want to help, we need to have good intentions plus results.
    Given the debris of past failed projects in the field, I also have sympathy for donors who are trying to figure out where they should send their money. There is no tool for donors here to distinguish between organizations that are implementing sustainable projects from those that aren’t.

    The charity:water’s of the world also don’t give donors enough credit and are reducing the decision to something purely financial: 100% of your funds will go directly to the project or for $20/person, you can bring safe water to a person. But the real measurement of success is this: do you know that the project you implemented 5 years ago is still working? (And frankly, I know what projects cost, and I wouldn’t want to live in the rural community with the $20/person water project. I read the recent charity:water explanation of their costs and it sounds amateurish to me – like they are figuring out the implementation thing as they go along.)

    What Tom wrote about on Tuesday was our organization’s desire to change the status quo – to create a sustainability certification system that encourages strong project implementation, provides an opportunity for implementing organizations to demonstrate that they are delivering on their promises, and also gives donors a way to differentiate organizations that are doing sustainable work from those that aren’t (and just say they are). That way, donors will have not just 501(c)(3) status and Form 990 data to make a decision, they will also have an independent evaluation of project outcomes.

    My words here are strong, and may make some people mad. But I regularly see the consequence if failed projects: a return to the drudgery of carrying water from distant, contaminated sources and the associated illnesses. And I’m not going to worry about hurting some feelings here because I’m trying to speak for the poor in the world who need us to get it right.

  • Nyc_h20

    Since ongoing maintenance of water systems and latrines/toilets is often missing, Maybe the plumbers could work with established organizations to help people in developing countries set up their own plumbing businesses. Closer to their core business, and would leave a lasting legacy!

  • Harry Farrell

    Hi Tom,

    This is Harry Farrell from Calgary, Canada. What you said might have had some truth initially. But I can assure you, my heart is in the right place in “Plumbers Without Borders”.
    My reason for putting a plug for “Plumbers Without Borders” on my Price-Rite Plumbing website is to make an awareness of our core values, and allow customers who share those values an opportunity to help a worthy cause.
    In hindsight, since combining business with charity a few years back, our business profit has actually declined considerably. This endeavor is in no way intended for my gain.
    It would bring me great joy to see “Plumbers Without Borders” grow into a global force of good in the world. And I am on board as a steering committee member… willing to launch a Calgary chapter. All this, at the risk of losing my Plumbing business.
    That’s how much this cause means to me. I will risk losing my livelihood, for the opportunity to serve those who don’t even have clean drinking water and/or a safe place to defecate.
    In response to your “On the broader level” comment>>>I agree that the problem appears to be poor governance and lack of infrastructure. But if we dig deeper, I think it is a lack of hope due to harsh dictatorship.
    As we are already seeing, in many of these such places the people have had enough. Once all is said and done, and the Gadhafis, Gbagbos, Mugabes, etc…are gone>>>there will be freedom. With this new found freedom might also come a desire to work for a better tomorrow. And they will need knowledge and skill to do the work.
    I like your comment about the guy in low slung carharts. But what if there were hundreds of them, and they knew a little more than just hooking up a p-trap. And if they were working in partnership with the hundreds if not thousands of engineers, architects, builders, hydro-geologists…etc without borders<<<We will have an army of volunteers ready and willing to work with the people, and teach them proper maintenance and installation procedures.